The Craft of Michael Frayn

The Paris Review interviews are an endless source of good advice and inspiration. Here’s a selection from their 2003 interview with Michael Frayn.

On the wide variety of his work I don’t have much control over what I produce. All I can do is to write the stories that come to me. And what a story is, is in part the way of telling it. A story is not an event in the outside world—it consists in the telling. It is only when you think that you have found a way of telling the story that you can start writing it. Different stories naturally suggest different ways of telling them.

On the difference between novels and plays Some stories require that you know what people are thinking, and some stories require that you don’t. In Copenhagen the whole point of the play is trying to find out what Heisenberg was thinking and what his intentions were in going to Copenhagen to see Niels Bohr. If I tried to write it as a novel the whole story would be told in one paragraph. I’d say, Heisenberg decided to go to Copenhagen in 1941 in order to talk to Niels Bohr about such and such, because he hoped that Bohr would say so and so . . . But I wanted to look at the difficulty of knowing that exists in life. So it seemed natural to be outside Heisenberg’s head and have to work out what was going on inside it.Because that was what it was about—the difficulty of understanding people’s intentions, even one’s own intentions.

On uncertainty Like anyone who is interested in science I was always interested in quantum mechanics, because it has so many bizarre philosophical implications. I have also been interested in what kind of knowledge you can have of people’s intentions. It just seemed to me that there is a kind of parallel between physical uncertainty and people’s intentions. The reasons why we can’t know everything about the behavior of particles are very different from the reasons why we don’t know everything about people’s intentions, but in both cases there is a theoretical barrier. What Heisenberg demonstrated is that even if we had much better machines, more accurate instruments, there was an absolute limit to our knowledge of physical objects that you couldn’t get beyond. Similarly, however much we know about biology and the structure of the brain, it is in principle impossible to have a complete understanding of intention and thought.

On creating characters Some writers claim that they start not knowing where the story is going to go. I can’t work like that. I do have to know where I think the story is going to go. However, then complications arise. It is like an industrialist setting up a new industry: He has this idea for a wonderful new product he wants to produce and it’s going to be of great value to the world, and all he has to do is build a factory, take on the staff and things will be fine. Then as soon as he starts to build the building, and as soon as he starts taking on the staff, problems arise: They make difficulties, they bring in the union, and so on. As soon as you involve other people in your schemes you get into difficulties. It’s like that with the characters. It sounds a bit whimsical but it does feel like that; as soon as characters come into the story, they begin to take on a life of their own, and they don’t always want to work the plot that you’ve so laboriously provided for them. It irritates me that they are so ungrateful!

On writing farce Farce chose me as its victim. When I first started writing farces, interviewers would ask me, Why do you do farces? Why don’t you write about life as it is? and I couldn’t understand what their lives must be like. I mean it seems to me that everyday life has a very strong tendency towards farce, that is to say, things go wrong. And they go wrong often in a very complex and logically constructed way—one disaster leads to another, and the combination of two disasters leads to a third disaster, which is the essence of classical farce: disaster building upon itself. It seems to me that the same thing happens in life, in my life anyway. I would like to live a life of classical dignity and write plays in blank verse or alexandrines.

On death I can’t say it’s something I think about a great deal. I’m against it, of course, but I can see that what gives life its value is that it is limited. What makes every moment precious is that there aren’t that many of them.

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