Class with James Bradley, bestseller author of ‘The Resurrectionist’

April 15, 2010 in Book Reviews, On Writing by pacejmiller

Last night for our narrative class we were fortunate enough to have Australian author James Bradley speak to us about his international bestselling novel The Resurrectionist and the writing process.

The Resurrectionist is Bradley’s third book, and it tells the somewhat morbid story of a young anatomist in early 19th century London who spirals into grave-robbing, and eventually, murder.  Inspired by the real life “Burke and Hare” murders, The Resurrectionist was shortlisted for The Age “Fiction Book of the Year Award” and the “Christina Stead Award for Fiction” at the NSW Premier’s Awards.  However, it wasn’t until the book was included as one of Richard & Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008 that it really took off, going on to sell over 250,000 copies and was translated into various languages.

Anyway, the first thing that struck me about James Bradley was how young he looked!  Mid-to-late thirties was my estimate, though I found out from Wikipedia that he’s actually almost 43.  From the parts of The Resurrectionist I had read, I imagined the author to be an old eccentric with silver hair, a hunchback, and possibly a goiter.  For some reason, I always picture authors who write period novels as oldies, especially those that can write elegant prose and seem to have a way with words.

James Bradley

Bradley began his talk by telling us how he came to write The Resurrectionist.  He had been fascinated by the Burke and Hare murders and the period in which they took place (the 1820s), where people lived in crowded, suffocating slums, and life had little value.  Even though the story was set in the past, given the horrors of today’s world, it does have a contemporary edge to it.

In the book Bradley sought to examine two universal themes: (1) what happens to people when they do terrible things? and (2) how much of our past can we truly leave behind?

The most fascinating part of the talk for me was when Bradley discussed his research techniques for The Resurrectionist.  Research for the book was a must, not just from a historical standpoint, but also because Bradley needed to know what corpses and body parts looked like, and how people handled them.  Accordingly, Bradley went to observe dissection classes with medical students, but the staleness of the preserved bodies didn’t feel realistic enough for him.  And so he went and observed live autopsies, and the image of the coroner peeling off the face and removing the brain, he says, is one that sticks with you forever.

I also found it interesting that even writers as successful as Bradley have incredible amounts of self doubt.  He kept saying how horrible he thought his latest drafts are for his new book (he currently has two new novels in the works, Black Friday and The Penguin Book of the Ocean) and how he hates his characters right now, which I thought was rather amusing.

Here are some other writing pearls of wisdom Mr Bradley dropped during the talk:

General

  • Voice is imperative to a story.  Once you figure out the voice, everything becomes easier.  Changing the voice could change the book completely.
  • There are a few things in every story that a writer knows he/she has to get right, and in order for the story to work, needs to get right.
  • Good writing comes from taking risks.
  • Write what you think is interesting.  People may often find what you think is interesting to be boring, so if even you think it’s boring, there’s not much of a chance others will find it interesting.
  • Write honestly — don’t tailor your writing to suit a particular market.  Write what you want and hope it finds a market.
  • Write about what you want and what you believe it.  Otherwise you may lack the motivation to finish it.
  • There is a moment a writer just knows that their book is complete, whether it’s adding a scene, taking out a scene, or something else.

Characters

  • It always helps knowing in advance where a character will end up.
  • Create characters you don’t ordinarily meet in real life, or put characters in situations that they don’t usually find themselves in — but most importantly, make them feel real.

Research

  • Do enough research to make yourself confident enough to write about the subject, but not too much to the extent it restricts what you want to write.  It doesn’t have to be completely realistic — the important thing is to make others believe it is realistic.

Lastly, just a few of interesting factoids.  First, Bradley writes on a computer and not by hand (for those who keep wondering whether writing by hand is always advantageous).  Second, Bradley was a lawyer before becoming a writer (like me!).  Third, The Resurrectionist was rejected by Bradley’s publisher and he lost an agent because of it.  Now, it’s by far his most successful book.  As he told us last night, “You just never know.”

[PS: Ever since I read the first chapter of The Resurrectionist for our class readings about a month ago, the book has been on my “to read” list.  There was something about the detailed yet detached descriptions of very confronting images that captivated me.  After last night, I may have to move it up the list.]

[PPS: For more information on the book, click here.  Also, check out James Bradley’s WordPress-based blog, City of Tongues.]

[PPPS: The Burke and Hare story is being adapted into a new feature film, a black comedy starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the murdering duo, set to be released in 2010.  Interesting they have it as a comedy.  I guess we’ll see.]