Sunday, September 30, 2012

Gladys Pagendam’s ‘Compline’ is a must read for Beatles Fans

Nearly every Beatles’ fan has a one time or another fantasized about meeting their favorite Beatle in person or perhaps even developing a friendship with one of them. Author Gladys Pagendam, of Brisbane Australia, has taken that fantasy and woven it into a unique and engaging novel about a dying woman who has had a life-long relationship with George Harrison that she has never shared with anyone before. With her death from cancer imminent, she begins to share her story with her family and through this experience the family begins to both accept her inevitable death, but also to heal their own lives along the journey. 

I recently had the opportunity to interview Gladys Pagendam about her novel and its unusual premise and use of what I now know is called “magic realism.” Knowing that, like her protagonist, she had grown up in Liverpool during the Beatles’ beginnings and had also once been a nun, I was curious about her story and just a little bit unsure of how much of her story was true fiction and how much might be based on her real life experiences. 

MC: When did you first know you wanted to be an author and how long did it take for you to make it a reality? 

GP: I was challenged by various events to find my own creativity. I didn't think I had a creative bone in my body when I was younger but I always appreciated creativity in others. I didn't consider writing at first because I had once had my head put under a cold tap by a teacher for only getting a score of eight out of a hundred in a spelling test. But then I remembered a teacher in senior school raving over a story I wrote, so I rang up a publisher in my home city of Brisbane and said I had some children's stories and would she be interested in looking at them with a view to publishing them? She invited me to present them that Thursday. While it was true that I did have numerous stories in my head, I did not have any of them down on paper. So a frantic writing phase began, my husband sketching as I wrote. I think we had three picture books by the time Thursday came. The publisher smiled benignly on our cute stories but said if I really wanted to publish I should write where there was a gap in the market - that was for boys around 8-11 years. So I wrote 'Sit Beside the Gnomon' which was accepted for publication within six weeks. 

MC: When did you first get the idea to write this particular story? 

GP: 'Compline' was a long time in my heart before it was in my head. I first thought of it in the early seventies but I did not have the skills to write a novel that size then. I began to attend writing workshops and this led to me writing more children's novels. Publishers wrote back lengthy letters commending my work and encouraging me to keep sending it out, even though it did not fit their lists. These were never published, but I collected a file of enthusiastic letters from publishers. Work and family life got busier and there wasn't a lot of time for writing. However, ‘Compline’ was always on my mind and I did a university course, with two writing majors, while I was working, and when my own children were studying, to prepare myself for writing it. I obtained my degree in 2008 and that is when I began to write ‘Compline.’ 

MC: Your book touches on The Beatles in unique ways one of which is the fact that only George has a starring role. Why did you pick George for this special role over all the other Beatles? 

GP: As a young girl in Liverpool, I always liked George best among the Beatles, but I chose to write about him because he was deeply spiritual. You have to understand the theory behind Compline to understand this, and while theory can be a pain and not interesting to all readers, ‘Compline’, putting it simply, is a post-modern novel. It pushes and blurs the boundaries of writing so that innovation can occur. George would have understood this because the Beatles tried to do this with their art form. The cross 'poem' is an example of this. Try putting ’Compline’ into a specific genre. You can't, and this is deliberate. It is a novel that dissolves the boundaries of genre, time and place. It is at times really earthy and at others ‘off the planet’. Nan’s story emerges from diaries, letters, storytelling, memories, and poems. It is a blend of autobiography and fiction but you never know which is which. It is about life but also about death and dying. It includes four romances, elements of crime, a ghost story, drugs, and it goes from the vernacular to the mystical. I also tried to blur the boundaries of sect and creed by connecting Christianity and George's Eastern philosophy. George was perfect for my theoretical purpose. On another level, George was also a good man from whom we can all learn. He did not let fame make him greedy or egotistical. Furthermore, he and I share a deep philosophical connection – to become less, so that our Lord could become more. He believed in an afterlife and he wanted to live honorably and die well, despite the horrendous disease he died of. How inspiring is that? It was George's soul and spirit that captured my heart and I wanted to lift them up and honour them, thereby keeping his spirit alive in a world that needs such altruism. Furthermore, just by coincidence he lived around the corner from me and we would almost certainly have used the same bus stop, although I never knowingly met him. There were so many connections. So I just had to feature George. 

MC: Another unusual aspect for a Beatles book is the setting of Australia instead of Liverpool. Having grown up in Liverpool, it was also familiar to you so was this a deliberate choice and did you ever consider setting the book in Liverpool? 

GP: I tried to set ‘Compline’ in Liverpool at first, but it didn't work for my theoretical purpose. I wanted the story to emerge like a jigsaw, from a variety of sources. Though I love Liverpool dearly and am addicted to books about it, I did not live there for long as an adult. As you know, writing is more authentic when it is about what you know and experience yourself, so I didn't have that authentic background of growing old there to draw on and I wanted to write authentically.

MC: I see a lot of similarities to the little bit of your own life that I know about and Nan’s early life. Obviously you have taken that age old advice to write what you know. But where does your life and Nan’s diverge? 

GP: You should note I am smiling at this question!! To answer it: Ah well, that is for me to know, and others to speculate about! In ‘Compline’, there is a blurring of the boundaries between the real and the imagined and that is also deliberate, though I genuinely do sometimes have difficulty remembering what is real and what is not in ‘Compline’. I stick to my story that it is a fiction. I wrote it wanting people to wonder what is true and what is not, so that they would keep pondering it after they had put the story down. You see, a truly postmodern work has a life of its own once it has been shared. The reader becomes the new storyteller and so what you imagine about Nan, is the way it is for you. That is one of the reasons I quoted George at the beginning and end. He felt detachment is important. You do what you do and then let it go. It is another way in which George and I connect and speak the same language. I learned a lot about detachment too in my Christian philosophy and during my life as a nun. 

MC: Nan was an engaging and interesting main character and I was so disappointed when she died. Was it difficult to end the life of a character that you had given life to? 

GP: No because Nan's spirit will always live on in the minds and hearts of those who choose to read her story as it will within me. In post modernism we talk about ‘The Death of the Author’. The reader becomes the most important person in the book's life once it leaves the author. Besides, what does dead mean? Like George, I too believe in an afterlife, and I am sure Nan will lead just as interesting a life after death - as we might find out in a future story!!!! 

MC: Do you have a special fondness for any of the other characters in your book

GP: That is a hard one. I love and admire Emily, not only because she struggles the most, but because she eventually uses her struggle to grow. I admire Emily for searching her own heart and for taking responsibility for her own choices. I admire her for eventually choosing to make her pain work for her rather than against her. 

MC: Which of the characters was the hardest for you to create? Which was the easiest?
GP: Matthew was the hardest character to dream up because I have no experience of being male. Maybe that is why he is the strong silent type. I was confident I could portray Nan so, in a way, my own confidence was enabling. She is also the most interesting because her character is so paradoxical. For example, she's fervent but irreverent, gentle, but tough. But that is what I really wanted to show - a multifaceted person with interesting dimensions and depth of character. 

MC: Your characters’ lives were rich with issues they were dealing with including family issues, work challenges, illness and even some financial problems. Did you plan these problems out from the start and know how they would resolve themselves by the end of the book or did the problems and the loose ends sort of sort themselves out as the book progressed?

GP: No. ’Compline’ was an unusual writing adventure for me, from beginning to end and I never knew what was going to happen until I was writing it. I usually do plan and I began writing ‘Compline’ in the usual formal way. But it just wasn't flowing and I was getting nowhere. I scrapped the first few chapters and began again. This time I let it lead me where it wanted to go and unconstrained as I was, I had the best time writing it. So I was a really free spirit with it, and I was often surprised by what I wrote. I have been to many workshops where they talk about planning and I think it is really useful to do that. Maybe I am at a place, with my writing now that I don't need to use planning as a useful tool for structuring my novels. Or perhaps because of the magic realism element, I just needed to be freed up. I don't really know. I just know it was an exciting journey and much more fun than doing a formal structure. I often felt, while I was writing, as if I George was leaning over me, prompting me. That's a bit fanciful, I know, but nevertheless, it is what I felt - as if he were that close. 

MC: And speaking of planning – what method did you use to plan the book? For example, some authors write a complete outline of what will happen in each chapter before ever starting to write the book. Did you do this or some other method?

GP: As I said earlier I did not plan like I usually do. But I always knew that the story would have the apparition in the convent chapel. That was the first idea that came to me way back in the seventies or eighties. Then as I did the research and other ideas came. There were useful coincidences that I picked up on. For example, George living at Kinfauns, at Friar Park, and George visiting John in Weybridge. I could connect these with my own life as a nun because I actually did live in Weybridge, and so we could have had some sort of encounter. Finding these snippets of information was like finding treasure. I also noted lots of details as I researched, down to the fact that George loved jelly babies. I used lots of those small details in my story. That was one thing I did up front before putting pen to paper. I did the research and then used the details, writing them into my story as and when I could. 

MC: What was the hardest part of the entire process of writing the book? What was the easiest part? 

GP: The hardest part was definitely The Magical Mystery Tour Fancy Dress Party. I didn't want to upset people who were there by putting them into situations that were untrue. It was my husband's art that eventually gave me the idea of how to get around the problem. Some of his work is impressionistic and I figured that Sr. Jude's memory of the event would have to be vague and almost dreamlike, so I came up with the idea of portraying her drunk or doped, so that she could only recount a hazy version of events that didn't have to be accurate. It took me six months to figure out how to resolve this problem. It is the first time I have ever had writer's block. Watching my husband paint often gives me an interesting perspective on my writing because he is trying to do the same thing as me in a way, only he uses paints to create his pictures, whereas I use words. 

The easiest part was creating the nun persona because I had first-hand experience of it. There was very little research involved in that part. 

MC: The title you chose is interesting because unless you are familiar with convent life, the word Compline is probably foreign to you. Did you consider any other titles? 

GP: Yes I thought of 'From the Cavern to the Convent'. I used the title ‘Compline’ because it is full of symbolism and I am very into symbolism. Nuns sing Compline before retiring into the grand silence, which forbids speaking until after Matins the following morning. For me, it symbolised Nan's journey into the silence of death. I also liked the idea of using a word that would make people curious. I did it with Sit Beside the Gnomon and people seemed to like it. 

MC: You once mentioned that you employed a writing technique called “magic realism.” What is that? 

GP: It is a seamless crossing of the boundary between reality and the imagined. I fell in love with magic realism as a student, and when I read Italo Calvino's stories I was totally hooked. I don't think of magic realism as being the same as fantasy. It is more a blend of the person people see and that person's inner world, which is what I explore in Nan. With Nan I tried to use it playfully, to portray her more innocent and childlike qualities. I liked being able to portray this extra dimension of Nan and George assisted me so wickedly.

MC: What question do you wish I had asked you and what is the answer to that question? 

GP: Would you have liked to have met George in real life? I would very much have liked to meet him in this life but I am confident I will meet him in the next. There are so many questions I would like to ask him. I like to think he is still using his talents to rock the heavens! I can see it in my head: On Cloud Nine, roll up for a tribute concert for Bangladesh!!!! Take it away George! MC: Do you have any plans for another book in the near future? GP: I have several in my head clamouring for precedence. But first of all I want to get the novels I have written for children 'out there'. These are time travel and fantasy stories that have had wonderful feedback from publishers, so I know they are good. 

MC: If you have any other questions for Gladys, please post your questions in the comments below and I'll pass them on to her and post her answers here.

'Compline is available in eBook format from Amazon and will soon also be available in paperback. You don't need to have a eBook reader however as Amazon has a read app you can download to read eBooks on your PC or laptop. I highly recommend this book to all Beatles' fans.