Matt Charman learnt how to write by reading between the lines. As an impoverished English-literature student in the late 1990s, he spent weeknights hanging around London theatres waiting for the interval, when he would slip unnoticed into the stalls to catch the second act. The next day, at the theatrical bookshop Samuel French, he’d read the first act. “Between seeing the end at night, and reading the beginning in the morning, you’d have all night to break the story, to think about what could have happened. It was a brilliant structural exercise.”
From exercise to practice didn’t take long: by 2004 Charman’s first play, “A Night at the Dogs” had won the Verity Bargate award for new writing. Since then he’s had three plays produced at the National Theatre in London, one – “The Machine”, about the chess match between Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue computer – premiere at Manchester International Festival before transferring to The Armory in New York, and a drama series, “Our Zoo”, play on BBC1 in 2014.
Next up, cinema. Variety included Charman in its most recent watch-list of new screenwriters, after it took him just 15 minutes on the phone to convince Stephen Spielberg to direct his screenplay “Bridge of Spies”. The film, which has just been released in America and opens in Britain this November, stars Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, a New York lawyer who negotiated with both Castro and the Russians for the release of captured American servicemen during the cold war. “It was the most exciting and terrifying 15 minutes of my life,” Charman says, and the ride didn’t get any slower – from pitching to movie executives in LA to standing on set in New York took less than a year. In Hollywood, where scripts can sit in development for ten years, that is the blink of an eye.
Which is exactly how, Charman says, he might tell that story on screen: “The great thing about movies is if you want to show an ice cube melting, you can, if you want to show the wilting of a flower or the decomposing of a piece of fruit, you’ve got that probing eye that watches from a millimetre away. On stage you can’t do that because the lens is so much bigger – though you can show an actor’s physicality slowly changing. I’ve seen talented actors age in front of my eyes, just by the stoop in their back, the way they get up from a chair or the way they start to speak more slowly. Theatrical time is playful; screen time is precise. It’s not just ‘late at night’, it’s ‘midnight’ – which I love. Because we’re very different people at 4am than we are at 6am.”
Which brings us neatly to his watch. Charman says he feels “utterly naked without one – because I don’t own a mobile phone”. Why? “If it takes me an hour to travel across town to a meeting, that’s an hour of thinking time. If I had a phone I’d be calling my brother, my mum, my friends.” Not having a phone and relying on a watch gives him time “to just be in my own head for a bit”. And that, for a writer, is the best place to be. ~ ISABEL LLOYD
Nobody could accuse James Hannah of working fast. He began his debut, “The A-Z of You and Me”, in March 2008, reworked it during a novel-writing course in 2011, finished it late in 2012, then spent a further ten months editing before it sold. It was published earlier this year by Transworld, and was almost immediately long-listed for the Desmond Elliott prize for new writing. Some things are worth waiting for.
“The A-Z…” is pierced by a sense of time – the past lost, the future running out – as its dying protagonist, Ivo, reflects on his life and failures from his hospice bed. That sounds bleak, but the novel is warm-hearted and often very funny; both this and its structural ambition – it’s built around a (time-wasting) game in which Ivo has to think of an alphabetical list of parts of his body then tell a story about each part – mean he’s often compared to David Nicholls, the author of “One Day”. Hannah, who was born in Northampton in 1975 and now lives in Shropshire, says he can’t see the similarity, though he’s equally shy of admitting any debt to the writer he specialised in at university: Samuel Beckett. “Beckett was fascinated by the disconnect between our experience of time and its reality; he talks about how the faster a pendulum swings the more time is stopping – in other words, when a pendulum has reached its point of fastest swing, it has in fact stopped. I found as I was writing the end of my book, I was using fewer and fewer words to map out the same amount of time, and so Ivo’s experience of time passing as he dies speeds up in quite an unsettling way. Time spent in hospices is curious anyway. My wife and I spent three weeks sitting in a hospice waiting-room when her mother was dying, and you know, it felt like one day.”
He says the act of writing, too, can feel “temporally questionable”. “John Cleese has something very interesting to say about creativity: he sets aside two hours ‘to play’. The first half an hour he’s getting into it, and then for the next hour and a half he is completely at one with it – but he has to know that it’s going to end. If you’re being creative, you need to know you’re going to run out of time. That’s possibly the problem with the internet, because there you can play for ever. Switching off the internet for half an hour while you get down into what you’re doing is a beautiful thing.”
Hannah doesn’t own a watch “at the moment” but was intrigued by what he saw at our shoot. “The watch industry and the publishing industry are under comparable pressures, because technology is impinging on both of them. Publishing has invested a lot in making books look and feel really good – book covers are in the middle of a golden age – and the way the watch industry talks about itself, its carefully sourced materials, its skilled handcrafting, it’s a similar fetishisation of the product. A watch can be a lovely object to have, just like a hardback novel.” ~ IL
When Sean Borodale first came to public attention he wasn’t wearing an expensive watch but a fine veil and a pair of Marigold washing-up gloves. “Bee Journal”, published in 2012 and shortlisted for both the Costa Poetry award and the T.S. Eliot prize, is a collection of poems written hive-side – hence the Marigolds: sturdy beekeeper’s gloves would have made Borodale’s rapid jottings impossible.
The collection opens in early summer with the arrival of the bees at his Somerset home:
The noise of weight;
We carried through our proscenium of grasses
To the stand we’d built
It closes nearly two years later with their death in one of the coldest winters on record. The hive has become a miniature Pompeii – “Look, they are just where they were.”
Borodale’s poems are haunted by time. Writing in the company of the bees, he had “a sense of time teeming in an instant of many positions at once”. It felt akin to “being inside the cloud of an exploded watch, all the parts revolving and shimmering and swarming at different speeds”.
The desire to catch the world on the wing began when Borodale was six, and found a poem lying around in his parents’ house. “I was fascinated by this enigmatic thing. I probably didn’t understand it, but I knew it wasn’t a song or a story.” By the time he was seven he was writing “what you might call poems”. It felt an absolutely natural way for him to engage with the world, and even those early poems were written hastily, freezing experiences just before they passed, as he saw his photographer father doing.
Earlier this year he published “Human Work”, a collection that invites us to perch next to him in his cottage kitchen while he makes everything from stewed apple (having been “flensed”, apples “sag in the pot’s sweat”) to damson ice cream, gratin potatoes, gingerbread, pancakes and wild garlic pesto. Even better than “Bee Journal”, it makes you hungrier with each succeeding poem.
Cooking crucially involves specific lengths of time. So mightn’t that seduce Borodale into becoming a watch-wearer? “A watch that slurred down or sped up to the experience-sense of time…would be ideal,” he says. ~ MAGGIE FERGUSSON