‘Book at Bedtime’: Hearing someone else’s novel

Every evening last week, at 10:45 pm, I was to be found on the sofa at home, listening to Radio 4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’, hearing Trading Futures read back to me by Toby Jones. This was a surreal experience.  

Anyone who reads a novel will form a view of it, not just of its quality, but of its essence: the impression that the book presents to the individual reader. And different readers will form different impressions, creating a spectrum of variations on a supposedly fixed theme.

The author is not separate from this process. He or she will also have a viewpoint on the novel, on what constitutes its essence. This view will be different from the view of many readers. In other words, the author does not enjoy sole ownership of a novel, once it is published. A reader’s perspective will be different, and equally valid.

These thoughts are prompted by listening to ‘Book at Bedtime’ last week, because what I heard was not exactly what I thought I had written.

To some extent, this was a consequence of the abridgement. Trading Futures is a short novel but, at a guess, I would think that only 10-15% of it made it on air. I am full of admiration for the skill that Jill Waters brought to the adaptation. It was a work of genius, amidst such a carnage of words, to retain the plot, the main characters, and the important signposting, with such clarity.

As Jill recognised herself, there had to be casualties in this process, and the main casualty was the humour. The novel that was broadcast was more serious, more of an elegy, than the novel I thought I had written. I don’t mind that. Trading Futures is intended to be a serious and emotional novel, although also a funny one. A different abridgement might have made it sound like a rollicking laugh, with the serious themes almost incidental. I would not have wanted that. If a choice had to be made, which it did, it was the right choice.

My perceptions were also changed by Toby Jones’s reading of the novel, in both senses of the word. Inevitably, Matthew Oxenhay is a character fixed in concrete in my own mind – which, as discussed above, is not necessarily how he will be fixed in anyone else’s mind. It took a while, into the second episode, for me to adjust to the Matthew that Toby Jones was presenting, and to accept the differences from my own mental Matthew.

By the end of the serialisation, I could see a Matthew that was more equivocal, more elusive, more subtle than my Matthew, and I loved it. He had become less of a black and white character, had acquired a greater depth. Toby Jones was also superb at reading the other parts, and especially Anna, who acquired nuances that I didn’t know I had written (and perhaps hadn’t). This, of course, is exactly what a fine actor does, which is why theatre at its best is such a powerful medium: a double dose of meaning and interpretation, greater than the sum of its two parts.

The main challenge of Matthew, for the author and the actor, is to make him sufficiently sympathetic for people to care what becomes of him. By the time the novel starts, he is not an agreeable man. Several people told me I was mad to make such a selfish, unpleasant character the protagonist of a novel. That made me more determined to do it. If literature featured only likeable people, what sort of mirror would it be holding up to life? And how many great novels would never have been published?

But readers do need to care, or they stop reading. Not everyone will find it possible to care about Matthew. I accept that. I would rather have written a novel that some people like a lot, and some don’t like at all, than one that everyone thinks is fairly good. In my biased opinion, the radio adaptation will have gone a long way to making the listener care about Matthew, and want to know what happens to him. This is a tribute equally to the sensitivity of the abridged script, and to the sensitivity of Toby Jones’s interpretation.

I must also mention the theme music. The melancholy guitar that opened and closed each episode was the intro to a folk song called Changes, by Phil Ochs. Jill Waters asked me to suggest the music, and I was delighted when she accepted such an obscure recommendation. To me, Changes (in its full lyrical glory) is the theme song of the novel. Phil Ochs was a hugely gifted and influential singer-songwriter, who took his own life in 1976.

So. There it is. Trading Futures is out in the world, and on the airwaves, and never again can it be entirely and only the novel that I wrote. It is now the novel that you, I hope, will read, and that you will transform into something different. It now has its own life.