The Big Interview: Carol Rifka Brunt

A re-run of my interview with Carol Rifka Brunt, author of ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’.

Carol RifkaBrunt color photo

GCH: I heard this novel started as a short story but then the voices (sorry characters) kept talking to you. How did you develop a short story into a full novel?

CRB: I started out with just a tiny snippet of an idea. I had the image of a dying uncle painting a final portrait of his niece as a way of leaving a last connection behind in the world. That turned into a 700-word short story, which was very similar to the first chapter as it stands now. In fact, the first paragraph remains virtually the same to this day, which is quite unusual.

The characters continued to interest me, so I followed them. As I wrote I discovered that the disease the uncle was dying from was AIDS. That led me to create Toby, his partner, and it led me to the setting of New York in the late 80s. And on and on. It was a very organic process. It was only after writing about 100 pages that I really started asking myself questions about the bigger story and focusing the book to tell that story. Having only written short stories up to that point, I was very concerned with making sure the reader had a reason to turn 400 pages. I really had to up the narrative drive and keep in mind the sense of telling a larger story.

GCH: And what will be your next project?

CRB: The process that I just described–the organic, feeling my way along way of doing things–is how I tend to work. So, I’m working on several short stories at the moment, with one or two starting to grow into bigger things. A novel-length project really needs to hold my interest on a pretty deep level to warrant the years it will take to bring it to fruition. By working on a few shorter pieces I’m able to find the ones that strike that deeper chord.

GCH: What’s your favourite writing music?

CRB: I don’t like to listen to anything while I’m actually writing. I am so very easily distracted and I love music, so if I have music playing I find all I’m doing is listening or singing along and no writing is getting done at all. I do use music to get in the right mood and frame of mind to write. For this novel there was a lot of quite beautiful melancholy stuff. I just did a Book Notes piece for Largehearted Boy.

GCH: Tell me about your writing process. Do you plan out your novel or let the characters loose?

CRB: I talked about the organic side of the process above and I think this is critical. There has to be a playful period when you just let your subconscious fall onto the page. For me, this usually isn’t a big spilling out of pages. My first drafts tend to be very spare. I’m feeling for the bones of the story. Who the players are and why they’re there. I’m feeling for morally complex situations. There’s a quote by somebody (I wish I knew who) that says ‘the first draft is the writer telling herself the story. The second draft is the writer telling the reader the story.’ This is so true for me. The editing process is where so much of the best stuff comes out. I’ve started to really understand the story I want to tell, both thematically and plot-wise, which means I write scenes and work with the material to make the whole piece sing the same song.

GCH: You’re originally from the US. What do you think about the food in the UK and do the Brits talk about the weather as much as they are portrayed?

CRB: I think the food here has gotten so good. There’s still a bit more individuality in restaurants in the US, but I have no complaints over quality and availability of the very best ingredients here.

GCH: If you could be a character in any movie or TV show, who would it be and why?

CRB: I just wrote a piece for Electric Sheep magazine on this very topic:

GCH: Favourite food?

CRB: Depends on the day. Very dense moist chocolate cake would always be up there, though.

GCH: Who’s the most important person in your life and why?

CRB: My family

GCH: I’ve heard writers are a funny bunch. Do you have any superstitions or rituals to help you write?

CRB: Not really. I do find it easiest to write at home. The less distractions, the better. And deadlines. They always help!

GCH: If you could edit your past, what would you change?

CRB: I suppose I might have chosen to become a doctor or a chef or something that would have given me a specific useful skill.

GCH: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

CRB: ‘just’ and ‘basically’

GCH: What is your guiltiest pleasure?

CRB: A box set of some fabulous slow-evolving HBO series

GCH: I’ve heard your a member of four different writers groups. What do you think makes a good writers group?

CRB: That makes me sound like a bit of a writing group whore! Let me explain. I’m only really in three at the moment and they’re each very different and fill a different role. One is a women’s salon type group, which is more discussion than actual writing. One is an intense online critique group with three American writers. We met via an online short story writing workshop and admired each others’ work and wanted to stay in touch., They are excellent readers and I always pass my work by them. The third is Resident Writers, which is great for getting words down on the page during the group session. Unfortunately, due to timing I can only attend occasionally.

I think writing can be such an isolating thing and getting together with other writers is one way to alleviate that a bit. Plus, who else but other writers will understand the joys of scribbled encouragement at the bottom of a rejection letter!

GCH: Tell us a secret.

CRB: No!

UK cover


Throwback Thursday:Remakes – The Good, The Bad & the Downright Pointless

Here’s a throwback to an article I wrote about in number of remakes of foreign language films, but it also links well to the number of remakes of ‘classic’ films.


So the remake of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ will be hitting cinemas shortly and it got me thinking about the influx of remakes which have graced our screens: Let The Right One In/Let Me In, Ringu/Ring, Ju-on/The Grudge, Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters)/The Uninvited, Seven Samuri/Ants, Magnificent Seven, Three Amigos, The Expendables and many more.

As someone who loves foreign films, I’m always a little skeptical when a remake of an acclaimed film is announced and I know that I am not alone in my eye-rolling when a new remake is announced. Surely if the first one was good enough, can’t you just read the subtitles? Does Hollywood really need to remake (read: destroy) an original when the original was a film of quality?

Reading a recent online article the stats are pretty depressing. According to the article,  American’s apparently do not like reading subtitles and therefore non-English movies always fare poorly at the box office there. Also, American’s prefer a known director, recognisable actors extended action scenes, and a happy ending. However it should be noted that foreign language films are rarely shown on the same number of screens or English language films which might go some way to explain their poor box office returns.

This last point reminded me of a conversation I had with a Japanese student about films. She said that the difference between many Japanese and Western films is that if the Japanese weren’t moved to tears by the end of the movie (generally with the main character or their love interest dying in a spectacular, often self-induced manner) then they did not feel as if they had received value for money. In contract, if you leave the cinema without knowing the baddie got their comeuppance and the geek found love with the impossibly beautiful girl, then we in the West didn’t feel as if we had got value for money. It’s a cultural difference which might explain the need to change the ending of so many films, giving them the ‘Hollywood’ shine.

However, the figures don’t lie. The original ‘Girl’ movie grossed only $10million at the box office in the US, despite the books being incredibly popular in the US (and all over the world!). The budget for the remake is estimated to be in the region of $100million but it is estimated that it will make significantly more than that, thereby making the studios investment worthwhile. I’m assuming that the studio will be able to deliver it to a wider number of cinemas (foreign language films normally only being shown in niche or smaller cinemas) and it will also have the glitz and glamour of red carpet openings. Already the marketing machine is in full swing with interviews with the stars already being fed to the eager media, something which was more muted for the original film.

A recent article on the Guardian website discussed the rising influence of ‘world cinema’ and the impact it was having on the US market. It seems that many countries want to tell their own stories their way. Remember the clamour when the film ‘Mongol’ was released? A beautifully shot film telling the rise of Genghis Khan in both Mongolian and Chinese, it was seen as the rise of film makers from smaller countries and heralded as a very significant film. It was hugely popular when it was released and whilst it’s box office takings were not huge in comparison to Hollywood ‘blockbusters’ it certainly got people talking.

Yet there is a growing shift in people’s attitudes towards ‘world cinema’. The ‘Numbers’ website did a breakdown of which genres are popular in different countries, stating that anime is popular in Japan although it could be argued that it’s ghost or horror films are more popular abroad, whilst Spain makes a number of horror films which are distributed internationally and I think we can agree that China has produced a significant number of highly entertaining and stunning martial art-mixed-with-fantasy films starting with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and continuing with Hero and House of Flying Daggers. A number of these films have entered into the mainstream consciousness and frankly a remake of any of them would be absurd. I doubt if the climatic battle between good and evil would be quite so passionate if filmed on a council estate in the UK, although that does offer up an intriguing plot twist.

Many foreign language films have received critical acclaim and Oscar nominations, such as ‘Un prophete’ (A Prophet) from France or for the Argentinian Oscar winner ‘El secreto de sus ojos’ (The Secret in Their Eyes). The popularity of directors such as Guillermo del Toro ensures that their work becomes more readily available and I personally love films such as ‘El laberinto del fauno’ (Pan’s Labyrinth). I can only hope that these beautiful films are never ‘Hollywood-ised’.

Whilst to an extent I enjoy a good remake, more often than not, I prefer the original. Take for example the remake of ‘The Grudge’. The original was terrifying with an evil little boy who will haunt my dreams forever. However the remake took all that was scary about the first one and gave it that ‘Hollywood’ glitz. There was no terror, there was no atmosphere and the storyline that Sarah Michelle Geller would be living in Tokyo, working as ‘help’ for the locals and not being able to speak the language fluently is frankly stretching the realms of belief too far. At least with the remake of ‘The Ring’ they transferred the action to the US, the dreary, rain-soaked location matching the darkness of the film.

I enjoyed the remake of ‘The Ring’ and I wonder if it is because whilst they were faithful to the original story (at times it even looked to have been copied shot for shot) but the action was transferred and Americanisms helped make it a different film. I suppose this is the reason why I enjoy both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Whilst the stories are essentially the same (lonely outpost village targeted by bandits only to be protected by a group of outcasts before a final battle to the death) they are set half a world apart and are very sympathetic to where it is set: Japan or Mexico and the culture of each setting becomes part of the film.

Perhaps this is the key to a good remake: the story essentially remains the same but it is told in the style its audience is most comfortable with. A good story with classic themes everyone can relate to is universal, take the remakes and adaptations of the Grimm’s Fairytales, including it’s most recent ‘Hollywood-isation’ in ‘Once Upon A Time’ on TV, two Snow White films to be released next year and ‘Hansel and Gretal: Witch Hunters’ to be released soon.

As a writer it’s very hard to create an ‘original’ story because you cannot help but be influenced by all those incredible (or not so incredible) stories which have gone before but taking the themes raised in some of these stories and setting them in different worlds or times fills them with new life. A good story never dies. Like the bards of old, perhaps rather than ‘remaking’ them, we should embrace ‘re-telling’ allowing the story to evolve and touch a new audience, filling them with the same passion the original filled me.