‘Death mocks me at every turn. In twenty-four hours I’ve been demoted from Shakespearean tragedy to a second-rate zombie movie.’
The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker
By Bobbie Darbyshire
Published by Sandstone Press
Tell us about your new novel, The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker.
Many thanks for featuring it! Harry is a hugely famous actor – think Laurence Olivier crossed with Jack Nicholson. He’s adored by his public, but in personal life he’s an outrageous old egotist. Dying of a heart attack, he finds himself still in this world, stuck in a bizarre afterlife, while his very much nicer son Richard tries to escape a failing café, a dotty mother and the wrong girlfriend.
What was the inspiration behind the book?
The story I’d begun to develop explored the effect of a father’s mean-spirited will on his family, but it wasn’t firing my imagination. Feeling stuck and downcast, I complained to a friend: ‘The problem is that the most interesting character is dead…’ As the words left my mouth – ping! – the light came on in my head: Harry would still be around, observing how his will was received. He would have obstacles to overcome in the afterlife, a predicament that would limit him severely, bring him down a peg and teach him some lessons. I couldn’t wait to start writing.
What is it about the world of showbusiness that makes it ripe for comedic writing?
I found great comic potential in the gulf between an individual’s personality on stage and off. Not just Harry himself. Richard’s dotty mother escapes her inner panic and ordinariness by constantly re-inventing herself theatrically to an invisible audience and pretending the junk she hoards is a props department. And Quentin, a detestable reality-show wannabe, may, just possibly, be a nice guy…
Can you tell us a little about how you approach writing about serious subjects with humour?
The honest answer is I can’t help the humour. I put my characters in serious situations and it just happens. I was startled when the first writing group I joined laughed aloud at the pieces I read – I hadn’t realised they were funny. When a scene is too serious for comedy, I write it entirely seriously, but my nature is to see the absurd side of grave situations and to let my characters express this. Conversely, I like the poignancy of a pang of sadness in an otherwise happy ending, and that’s what I’ve aimed for with Harry.
The novel has a great cast of supporting characters. How do you balance between having fun with them while keeping to the structure of the story you want to tell?
Thank you! I love them all – right down to Harry’s cat, Henry V – and, as you say, enjoy having fun with them. But my priority is always to keep the reader wanting to find out what happens. So, however much fun they are, a supporting character is always there to propel the story forward, raise the stakes, deepen suspense, or set something up for pay-off down the line.
You’ve had a very varied career along with your writing. Do you think that has helped you as a writer having put your feet into so many worlds?
It certainly broadened my outlook, and occasionally I draw on these worlds in my writing, but mainly I was distracting myself from acknowledging the itch to be a writer. Most of the toe-dipping – barmaid, mushroom picker, film extra, maths coach, care assistant, adult literacy teacher – happened when I was a student or after I’d quit the civil service to write novels. The civil service also opened windows on different worlds, notably during my stint as private secretary to a cabinet minister.
What other comic writers inspire you? (And non-comic ones too!)
It’s the small moments of humour in general fiction that arouse my envy. From classics (e.g. Jane Austen, E. M. Forster, George Eliot’s Middlemarch) through the twentieth century (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor, Kurt Vonnegut), to today’s writers (e.g. Anne Tyler, David Nicholls).
It’s often said that comedy is harder to write than drama. What advice would you give to writers who want to try their hand at comedic writing?
Humour delivers a moment of pleasurable surprise, ranging from mild (an inward smile) to hilarious (fits of laughter). So my advice is don’t plan or contrive or explain your humour. Trust your brain to surprise you, then quickly get it down fresh on the page. When the scene is ready, try it out on a few readers. If it amuses them, great! If not, maybe something needs tweaking – the timing or the word order (surprise works best at the end of a sentence). Maybe these readers are humourless! Try it on someone else. Or maybe it’s a dud – let it go.
The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker by Bobbie Darbyshire is published by Sandstone Press, priced £7.99