With A Vipers’ Pit (Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi) enjoying a healthy run at Eden Cinemas, I thought I’d compile a little guide for prospective viewers before they take a chance on our political thriller-family drama-literary adaptation.
Response has been better than anything I had every hoped for: reviews ranges from ecstatic to ecstatically disappointed, but indifference was never the least bit part of the equation. For a low-budget debut based on a beloved book which attempts to treat national wounds, it’s just the kind of response you want.
So here’s a handily collated list of some previews, interviews and even reviews that the film has already amassed so far.
Starting from this Friday (6 August), those of you based in Malta can watch a film I wrote at Eden Cinemasin St Julian’s.
This is the first feature film script of mine to be produced, and suffice it to say that I’m excited about how audiences are going to react to our adaptation of Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi (literal translation: ‘The Snakes Are Venomous Again’; our translation, ‘A Vipers’ Pit’) by Alex Vella Gera, a novel whose trajectory I’ve followed from a very early stage back in 2012.
Director-producer Martin Bonnici called me up to ask if I’d be on board with adapting the novel back in late 2015, by which point the book had been established as a landmark of contemporary Maltese literature. This had partly to do with its thrilling core conceit – a group of ultra-Catholic nationalist insurgents plan the assassinaton of firebrand socialist prime minister of Malta, Dom Mintoff, in the 1980s – but also for more formal reasons.
Vella Gera’s novel is written in the bilingual register which reflects how a large part of the Maltese population speak; a linguistic schizophrenia that stands in for the binaries of social class on the island. The middle classes speak English, the working classes speak Maltese. At least, that’s the boilerplate belief, which has of course always been more nuanced on the ground than on paper. Middle-class born Noel Sammut Petri decides to break with that tradition after a move to Brussels, insisting on speaking Maltese in Maltese company.
It may seem like a small detail, but it speaks volumes. Where the English-speaking Maltese are either coded as elites or subject to gentle (and not-so-gentle) ridicule for the most part, Vella Gera chooses to depict this reality honestly, filtering some of this understandable distaste through the now liminal figure of Noel.
It’s one of the many ways in which the book resists an earnest, try-hard attempt to flaunt an idea of Malteseness that can be packaged and sold, and it’s probably the reason why it felt so refreshing to so many. Despite the attention-grabbing Mintoff plot, at its core the story is about the emotional landscape of the people trying to navigate the uncertain morass that is Malta: an infant Republic in its early segment set in the 1980s – following Noel’s father Richard as he’s pushed to serve as triggerman for the Mintoff assassination – and an EU member state at the cusp of regime change in 2012.
Vella Gera himself told me as much while we were conducting an email interview about the book prior to its publication in 20 October, 2012. Here’s a quote that didn’t make the final cut:
“I wanted to steer away from narratives dictated by the political parties. In a way, this book is a direct challenge to that bipolarism. Not that I’m propagating a “third way”, which is really conservatism by another name. However, like Noel, I too am aloof from the tug of war of local politics, so if my book were to be “unofficially boycotted” I think in a way it would be a success because it would underline that aloofness and continued lack of understanding of where I really come from
“Obviously, I have my political opinions, which to a certain extent continue to validate that aloofness, because I find very little in Maltese politics to rejoice over. I wonder who Noel would vote for. Probably [Green Party] AD, or perhaps he wouldn’t vote at all, or then again, he’d vote Labour just to spite [his property magnate friend] Roger. But I never get into these intricacies, because I find them very dull to deal with […] Personally I tried to steer away from getting too specific about anything except the gut feelings of people, which is what I’ve always felt is missing in most Maltese political fiction. That gut feeling that cannot be brushed aside or censored, or made more palatable with a joke or a witty aside, or some satirical tone.”
Despite its many changes to the source novel, I also sincerely hope that our film adaptation manages to convey a similar commitment to the complex emotional spaces the characters occupy, in favour of safely packaged assumptions, and jingoism by any other name.
When you spend a large chunk of your adult life going to the cinema during weird lonely hours as part of your job routine, something alters about the way in which you view that space. Working as a film critic for a national newspaper since I was 18 years old – albeit the nation being the micro-island state of Malta – while being blacklisted from the local distributor critics’ screenings for… reasons, meant that I got to watch films for review with a general audience, though rarely a full house.
A Friday deadline meant that I would need to get my films in by Thursday latest – leaving me little wiggle room as new films tended to make their way into cinemas on Wednesdays.
So aside from those rare occassions in which I could convince partners and/or friends to accompany me to watch a film that’s not entirely baker-fresh but which still remains reviewable after a weekend viewing, I got to spend a lot of lonely, torpid midweek afternoons in a darkened room with only a creepy trickle of strangers for company.
Looking back, it’s kind of jarring to think just how uninterrupted an activity film reviewing was for me.
There *was* a brief respite at the peak of my university years – during which I still maintained a nominal relationship with the newspaper, slotting in bits and pieces for the cultural supplement while one of Malta’s more veteran film critics took over – but I was soon back at it, penning a review for the then much-hyped Kate Winslet-starring middlebrow Oscar-courter, The Reader while starting my MA.
(How I would have loved to delve into Winslet’s richly devastating and utterly enthralling turn as the titular Mare of Easttown in HBO’s deservedly beloved recent mini-series. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe I’m finding a new appreciation for just leaving things be).
The only thing that could stop me, it turns out, was a murderous global pandemic. Between mandated cinema closures, the paper shortening its culture pages, and me opting for a return to full-time employment to stem the resultant economic haemorrage, reviewing films made for one unfeasible activity too many.
It would be romantic to say that I miss the darkened rooms, the creak and pull of the seats, the crunch of popcorn (crushed by both tooth and boot) and the promise of the possibility of total, immersive storytelling, with the auditorium as a dark womb keeping the world at bay while beautiful lies are spun across a screen as large as six or so people and accompanied by deafening sound.
The reality is of course far more prosaic – even if you’re after that level of immersion, your fellow punters are unlikely to be as committed, and the advent of the smartphone, coupled with the tendency to view the cinema as an extension of one’s living room, are just additional punctures. I don’t think I miss anything about being a regular film reviewer.
If anything, I honestly appreciate the unwitting benefits of this covid-induced break. A treadmill implies thoughtless forward motion. Now, I can finally think about what I was doing all these years. Or rather, what the process has done to me and for me.
When all is said and done (though it never, of course, truly is) what film criticism gave to me was an opportunity to work on my craft as a writer. This was hardly a pre-planned process borne out of specific ambitions and career goals (I was not too young to dream, but I was certainly too young to do so in anything resembling a structured fashion).
Yes, I did love movies as far back as I could remember. Yes, I did make a habit of leafing through Empire Magazine whenever I saw it on the shelves, sometimes even buying my own copies with pocket money. Yes, I can sheepishly confess to Marilyn Manson’s autobiography being a trigger for me here, a particularly embarrassing confession given the has-been shock-rocker has now joined the ranks of the justifiably ‘cancelled’.
But at the time, he was a gateway drug into a more flamboyant universe which openly flouted the shit-steamed sauna of the boys-only secondary school I attended. I saw something in his early forays into zine culture and freelance journalism which clicked with me. That possibly taking his path could serve as a stepping stone to more fully-fledged creative work.
Reviewing films on a weekly basis also gave me a glimpse at the inner workings behind a key truism that’s often bandied about in the general direction of so-called ’emerging’ writers: That it ‘never gets easier’, and that every subsequent project will be just as tough to think through and execute as its predecessor. But I found this truism to be both true, and not.
Certainly, it’s shocking – and hilarious – to me to think back on those early all-nighters as I desperately battled with my inner demons to churn out 800 words before deadline day. Social media as we now know it did not exist back then, so I would take to the then still-extant IMDB forums to temper my own critical insecurities by parsing through the smogasbord of public opinion: deluding myself into thinking that this is how I will get a feel for the consensus opinion so that my own review will be more far-reaching in scope… but really, I was just shit-scared to committing to my own ideas and opinions because I felt they were lackluster and inadequate.
So while the amount of required concentration and effort to execute an effective review did not diminish with time – much as I fantasised about it as some sort of romantic possibility, I never got to a stage where I could thoughtlessly churn out a review and submit it in under an hour – I did learn to quieten at least some of those demons to a whisper.
Coupled with the fact that my career path subsequently forced me to learn to juggle far more than just that one 800-word review a week – between writing other articles, curating a culture section, copy-editing commerical press releases and proofreading the entire paper, I was left with little room to be precious about *anything* – submitting one review a week over a long stretch of time meant that I learned to predict how my thoughts pan out across the process while also picking up on new tricks that would help me save time and effort.
The first of these was learning to relax into the viewing experience and doing all that I can to take it in as an audience member, not through some sort of strained ‘critical’ eye that favours a rarefied perspective.
One step at a time: first comes the viewing, then the retrospective critique. This was a crucial lesson in respecting the stages of the writing process and giving them their due. When writing a script, it’s wiser to consider the outline and treatment before jumping into the scene… in the same way, I picked up on how it’s best to just let the film unspool over you before the critical demons start puncturing through to cloud the experience. This also had to do with knowing your audience and understanding the parameters of the job.
After all, I was writing for a national newspaper, not an academic journal or a magazine that specialises in cinema, so the core purpose of my review was to give readers a full picture of what the given film is about – not just in terms of plot (and I always endeavoured to keep spoilers at a minimum) but the overall feel and tone of what they’d be experiencing if they choose to watch it.
Once I twigged to this function of my reviews, it became easier to focus on the task at hand at sentence-level, instead of worrying about how my piece will fare in some imaginary hall of fame of cuttingly perceptive analytical studies of contemporary mainstream cinema. The advent of Rotten Tomatoes and aggregator-culture in general would have plunged the knife even deeper anyway: who the hell is going to actively seek out my review when a three-second Google search will likely resolve the question of whether or not they should waste their time with any given new release? Had I let this get to me, I would be toast.
Instead, I learned to appreciate the more immediate pleasures at hand: the possibility to reverse-engineer my experience of watching a film and to assess its entrails for what’s worth cooking, what should be discarded… and what could be used to map out my own future as a writer.
I’m sure there’s tons more of my kindred spirits scattered around which I could find if I deigned to look hard enough, but so far the only prose works to make me feel a frisson of recognition when it comes to all this are Caitlin R. Kiernan’s short story ‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats‘, and Gemma Files’ haunting novel Experimental Film. Though Kiernan and Files can broadly be said to form part of the upper tiers of the international genre fiction community – with those works in particular mining a vein of elegantly disturbing horror – their approaches differ even in the works in question.
But there is something in both ‘Cats’ and Experimental Film that speaks to me: the idea of criticism as a starting point for keener existential immersion that goes beyond meta-ficitonal games. The idea that regularly putting films under the microscope means abandoning yourself to a labyrinth that could, by definition, go either way.
Looking back on it now that I am no longer in the grind and can finally afford to take a broader perspective on things… the greatest value of criticism for me lay in having to fully visualise and reverse-engineer an entire film while writing about it. It sounds like the kind of phenomenological minutae that can dovetail all-too-easily into banality. But it’s something that I think, in the end, gave me the tools I needed to help picture plot outlines and arcs for myself in a more solid and grounded manner when it came to writing my own stuff.
In many ways – and to risk banality once again – the clue is in the name: review. You are forced to run through the film once again in your head – because no, I could never spare the time or expense for an *actual* rewatch – and that does train your visualisation muscles. You begin to create a mind palace of story – reflecting somebody else’s, sure, but also adaptable to your own, eventually. It’s a retracing and remapping process, where you skim back over your memory of the film to rediscover what was notable, or to confirm or disprove and assumptions that you hold. In this way, the process is also useful to assess your own knee-jerk reactions and inbuilt prejudices.
Was that bit of dialogue really that bad? Could it have simply been functional to the story, or a reflection of the character’s state of mind at the time? Was that bravura mix of swelling soundtrack and magic-hour cinematography really great filmmaking, or does it fall apart upon reflection? But is the reflection a moot point anyway? Could it be that the reviewing process is not always the right approach to these things – that the ephemeral should be valorised as such, that its immediate experiential result is what should be placed under the microscope, and nothing else?
These are things I learned only gradually, and in small steps. ‘Learned’ is also too definitive – it implies a completed process: signed, sealed, delivered. It would be more accurate to say that I learned to internalise certain lessons by glancing at them and making a note of them for next time. But when the next time rolled around, I may or may not have forgotten what I was supposed to have learned. And the process starts again without the luxury of reflection, because the tickets have been bought, the voluminous Thursday afternoon seats are beckoning, and the Friday deadline is looming.
Film reviewing taught me to write. It could have been film reviewing, it could have been something else, but that’s what I was handed and it was a privilege in its own way. I entered in medias res – I did not start reviewing after a stint in film school (there was no such thing at the time in Malta, and there still barely is), and I only learned to pick up on film history further along the line, and in my own time. So there was no chronological development here for me – my training trenches were the early noughties releases from mainstream Hollywood, for the most part.
Truth be told, I don’t miss it terribly. Being a semi-professional opinion-haver is a thoroughly unsexy thing to be in this day and age, when social media has democratised such chatter to oblivion. (Actually, oblivion is too kind as it once again implies finality – a feverish vortex would probably make for a better fit).
But I am glad to the Hollywood behemoth for giving me a training mat on which I could jump, fall, and make a fool of myself before getting up again to fight another day. Its steely chassis will barely have registered the clinking and plinking punches from tiny Malta, so my necessary mistakes were allowed wide berth and shame was ever a stranger.
“Take no enterprise in hand at haphazard, or without regard to the principles governing its proper execution”
– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, Book Four)
Yes, I’ve been cracking open ye olde Meditations back up because some advice from the grandfather and grandmaster of Stoic philosophy would certainly not go amiss right now, when uncertainty is the order of the day and the mainstream world media — especially its malignant ‘social’ offshoot — is doing absolutely zero to counter the mood with some sense of sobriety or perspective.
But the above quote popped out for me, during my now once again regular re-read of the embattled Ancient Roman emperor’s diary to self, for reasons that have very little to do with the essential self-care we need all the more urgently at this moment in time.
No, the reminder to do nothing at ‘haphazard’ reached me on a more professional — or rather, vocational — level, as I felt it very much got to the heart of an important lesson I have learned about writing narrative stories — be they in prose or script format — over the past couple of years.
Marcus Aurelius via Batman, or vice versa: Daily meditation with the Meditations, with journal entries jotted into the Bat-book
It’s not a glamorous fact of the writing life, and neither is it bound up to the ‘tortured artist’ archetype in any way. In fact, in a lot of ways what I’m about to talk about swerves directly into the opposite camp, and perhaps the times we are living in call for precisely the kind of habits that evoke a degree of control and agency over the traditionally — notoriously — chaotic process of making up stories from scratch.
I’m talking about finding the rationale that lies behind either your plot mechanism, or the choices your characters make, in the interest of improving them for the benefit of subsequent drafts.
Now ‘character’ and ‘plot’ are almost always inextricably bound together, or at least they should be. What should we call this? I’m struggling to think of a more bite-sized term for it right now. Is it as broad as ‘rewriting’ or ‘editing’? Is it just ‘tweaking’, or does that teensy word not quite do it? Maybe I’ll arrive to the correct term or neulogism, maybe not. The point is that the process I’m describing often takes on a similar trajectory: that of working away at issues, problems and unwanted lacunae through the process of writing itself.
For me, it’s important that this does not happen before a complete draft is well and truly finished. An imperfect draft, sure. But a complete one. That allows me to see the big picture — such as it is — and make a clear and rational assessment of what needs to be fixed.
That’s why the Marcus Aurelius quote resonated with me. Sending off that draft without having polished it up, or even stopping half-way through to tweak at something that I nervously, pre-emptively assume is gonna be a problem later on, would indeed by a haphazard way of going about it. A script, novel or short story often has a lot of stuff going on inside it. Even the most minimalist of stories and narrative situations need to be informed by subtext, by nested considerations that move things forward, that plant seeds in the reader/viewer’s mind before hopefully being taken to full term in the most felicitous way possible.
But beyond the disciplinarian ‘good sense’ of not rushing things and giving them their due before assuming they’re ready so that you can focus and/or indulge in something else, the Meditations quote also got at something I legitimately find pleasurable about this stage of the writing process.
Just like certain filmmakers live by the dictum that ‘directing is the price you pay for going into the editing room later’, I find the greatest pleasure in cutting underneath the draft I’ve just written (over and above the more obvious, superficial ‘cuts’ that are also inevitably made) and figuring out why something doesn’t work, and how it could work better.
I think the ‘fun’ of this process has a lot to do with a sense of regaining control over the work. Now that the draft’s done, there’s far less of that Dark Night of the Soul feeling descending, and the associated ‘staring at the blank page’ jitters that either accompany it or are triggered by it. I can finally bring the full extent of my rational and analytical mind to bear: the same mind that I’ve chiseled into a decent-enough shape through my academic training and working as a film reviewer for over 15 years.
So finally, a touch of the familiar, the graspable and the tangible appears through the haze of uncertainty that otherwise characterises the writing process. It’s an uncertainty that is conducive to both chaos and play, to be sure, so that it can be fun in its own way. But regaining a sense of control is also affirming and energising.
This brings me to the latter part of the Aurelius aphorism, the bit about ‘the principles governing its proper execution’. Because the process of making something better through this kind of reworking would be hollowed out if it didn’t consider the in-depth internal logic of whatever problem you’re facing.
My most immediate experience of this process had to do with responding to a script note that called for a pivotal event in the story to occur much, much earlier than it does in the script as-is. My producer and I both agreed that we should think of a way to take this criticism on board and implement it productively, without compromising the integrity of the script as a whole.
So I got to thinking about how this action would alter some of the characters’ actions throughout the script as-is. I went back to the quasi-literal drawing board, writing out the logical trajectory of these change in long-hand. The end goal of this was to have a clear, bullet-pointed battle plan for what needs to be done. The changes that need to be implemented so as to make this note work. And it did happen, eventually.
But before I could get there, I spent a few pages writing out the characters’ motivations for taking this particular action, in this particular order, to accommodate the changes in line with a new chronology. This also led me to reconsider some taken-for-granted aspects of the characters in question. I thought I knew them. Turns out I didn’t get a chance to know them all that well, before.
In working out a logic that would justify the alterations suggested by the note, new things clicked into place. No, that one character doesn’t have to be as passive as they appear. They do have a desire, it’s just submerged so deeply it’s barley visible. And we need to think of ways to make that pop out. And so on.
In short, the process got me thinking about the ‘principles governing the proper execution’ of this character, and a couple of others who orbit around them and are influenced by their actions. It felt both rational, and organic. Like a clear understanding of something that lives and breathes, and which may yet surprise you in positive ways if you lay down a good environment in which it can thrive.
Chaos is often the order of the day because we aren’t born with a map at birth and cannot see into the future, which is why good stories are built in a way that respects certain internal harmonies that promote coherence. Focusing on the elements of the craft in this way has helped me find a ballast in these times. There’s a baseline for who we are no matter what happens around us, and that internal coherence is crucial to maintain because of what’s coming at us all the time, pandemic or not.
PS: Keeping me sane and out of the maddening rigmarole of the frenzied news cycle are great reads such as this, and this, as well as the ‘Coronavirus Newsroom’ set up in the Members’ Area of the Rune Soup portal.
Just like many other freelancers the world over, the economic fallout of the covid-19 epidemic has left me scrambling for work that would ensure my livelihood in the coming months. Scrambling is something out tribe is accustomed to, of course, and I’ve often been in this situation before and have emerged (relatively) unscathed.
But of course, these are extraordinary times, during which some old clients will scram any prospective ones suddenly find themselves denuded of any lust for adventurous new collaborations.
Freelancing in marginally less trying times, with thought bubble lamp for added effect
To this end, I would like to invite anyone who does retain a sense of adventure during these trying times to consider taking on my services as a freelance writer with experience in various fields — journalism, content writing and scriptwriting being the main three, though I’d be more than happy to work on anything you’ve got going as long as it’s in English and the deadlines are humane.
Neither is there any need to simply take my own word for it, however: do take a look at what some kindly but exacting professionals had to say about my work in various fields by popping over to the ‘Services‘ section of this very site.
Though it’s hardly the Netflix back (and front) catalogue, some of my own work could very easily keep you company while you’re social distancing away at home.
My debut novel started life as a piece of flash fiction, tumbled into larger and more mottled being thanks to the steady encouragement of Merlin Publishers’ Chris Gruppetta and was released into the little slice of world that would have it at the beautiful Cafe Wignacourt in Rabat, my Maltese town-crush.
Very much a debut novel in spirit, tone and theme, it is a labour of equal parts love and pain: deeply autobiographical and largely told from the POV of a young child, for gods’ sake. Does it get any more debut novel-y than that?!
You can find out more about it here. Those of you in Malta and Gozo can currently avail themselves of a 25% discount from Merlin Publishers — a covid-solidarity move that applies to all of their books. Do also check out Awguri, Giovanni Bonello, featuring a vampire-tinged historical fiction tale that was a blast to write, and which dovetails nicely into our next item…
Short Film: Camilla
Literary film adaptation and vampires are just about two of my favourite things, so it was an honour and a pleasure to be able to adapt Clare Azzopardi’s ‘Camilla’ into a short film, together with Stephanie Sant (who co-wrote and directed) and under the ever-intrepid auspices of producer Martin Bonnici (Shadeena Entertainment). The film was made possible thanks to a competitive fund awarded to us by the National Book Council, whose sterling work can, I hope, continue unabated after all this mess is over.
Meanwhile, please feel free to enjoy our 21-minute slice of Mediterranean Gothic, cross-generational romantic intrigue and sexual discovery, all wrapped up in a coming-of-age story featuring a wide-eyed but hardly bushy-tailed protagonist, brought to entrancing life by Steffi Thake, working under the austere shadow cast by the inimitable Irene Christ.
We can’t manage to catch a break in Malta, can we? It’s been at least since last November that some kind of mental stability or continuity — the latter being a repeated slogan in the party leadership campaign that was to crown the November madness — was the norm in both public and private life.
I was actually on a break of sorts when that first crisis hit. High on the freshly released fumes of success generated by our being awarded the inaugural Malta Book Council feature film fund for our feature film adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, I decided to go for an early, modest version of a writerly fantasy and booked a ‘writing retreat’ at the sister island of Gozo in off-season.
It was a no-brainer, at least in theory. I chose to stay at the notoriously quiet village of Gharb, with a pipe-shaft view from my typing window and grossly over-pixelated landscape printouts hanging by the bed. So, no distractions there. The breakfasts were also nice and energising — full English, with a dollop of French sweets and Gozitan cheeselets on the side — and having paid in full for room and board meant that I was internally pressured to get cracking on the reams of research and story development that needed to be done.
But the trip also coincided with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, so I could forget all about isolation and silence, in the broadest sense of the word. How could I resist checking my phone when the political status quo of the island was being dismantled right before our eyes? Not least when the project itself hardly offered a neat cutoff point: my research dealt with political violence and corruption in 1980s Malta, and if anything was to be salvaged from the distraction it was that the resonances between then and now ensured that our film will be laced with an enduring, if unfortunate, relevance.
With the fallout came the protests, and an unprecedented political crisis culminating in the resignation of then prime minister Joseph Muscat and the election of Robert Abela in his stead, with a reshuffled cabinet following suit. As alluded to above, ‘continuity’ was the watchword, and Abela — to the cynical chuckles of many — quickly declared that ‘normality’ has been restored to the island.
The onset of the global covid-19 pandemic makes short work of precisely that kind of rhetoric. We have seen how it’s served to symbolically unseat the likes of Donald Trump, whose bluff and bluster collapses ‘like a flan in a cupboard’ when faced with a threat both invisible and undeniable. Though I would caution against declaring that ‘the Trump presidency is over‘ so categorically — the orange oaf has survived a record amount of scandals — watching him scramble for some political purchase while playing the same old xenophobic tunes is just farcical at this point.
But it’s not just limited to politicians. The sight of suddenly quarantined celebrity actors deciding to make use of their newly housebound condition to splice together a group singalong of John Lennon’s Imagine — “Imagine there’s no people” is hardly the thing you want to hear while a murderous pandemic continues to spread on a murderous rampage of the elderly and otherwise vulnerable — also points to the tone-deaf nature of another privileged class.
The cluelessness of the global rich is hardly news — Best Picture winner Parasite all but rendered it into an archetype, and these elites are actually nice — but a pandemic has away of making it all come out like a particularly eye-grabbing Lovecraftian bas relief.
So yes, we’re still very much not getting a break right now: not from the bone-headed stupidity of the global hegemony, not from the callousness and stupidity of those at the top. But we’re joined in this worldwide, and while the imposition to enforce ‘social distancing’ certainly lends fuel to the fire of certain xenophobic tendencies informed by the idea of the infectious and corrupting nature of otherness, we’re also getting to see limits of our status quo.
A status quo within which, as a self-employed freelance writer, I am likely doomed to remain on the fringes of, for better or worse.
(Here’s the bit where ask anyone who’s reading this to consider making use of my services as a journalist, content writer or scriptwriter during these trying times, as existing clients start to bail and any prospective ones suddenly be).
Perhaps some would call the largely worldwide self-quarantine a break of some sorts, though of course it’s not that, not by a long stretch. But it’s certainly a break in the aggressive sense, a rupture of the old routines we’re now scrambling to become accustomed to, with varying degrees of success, and each in their own way.
I’ll try to keep chasing the resonances. Even if they’re not all pleasant ones. Because in times like these, some kind of internal coherence is what we need more than anything else.
To say that my adoptive home country is going through some turbulent stuff right now would be the understatement of an already-overstated century, but that doesn’t mean that wallowing in the chaotic morass is in any way productive or desirable… addictive as it may be.
Irreconcilable paradoxes and hastily grasped-at truths and half-truths are often the hallmark of great fiction, for the very reason that they tend to bug and scare us most of the time. This is where writers (and artists of every ilk) can actually step in to do some undeniable Good Work that affects Society at Large. By giving these ambiguities a thorough airing, they can allow us to point at our condition and feel truly ‘seen’.
Clare Azzopardi‘s latest novel Castillois many things, but at its root is a desire to express the ever-relevant – and now, sadly, even topical – helplessness we feel when faced with endemic corruption and apparently sanctified violence. Amanda Barbara seeks out her estranged mother following the death of the father who raised her, only to learn that the matriarch was errant as well as absent: almost off-hand, she confesses to committing two murders a couple of decades ago and feels not a little bit of guilt about her actions.
The real twist in the tale in many ways is the involvement of Cathy ‘K.’ Penza, also recently deceased and by all accounts the ‘cool aunt’ figure for Amanda… not least thanks to her side-career as the celebrated writer behind the ‘Castillo’ crime novels, extracts from which Azzopardi regales us with in interspersed chapters that deftly and joyfully display a masterful grasp of cross-genre pastiche.
It’s not just because of the novels-within-a-novel device – though this may be the most explicit manifestation of this strand of Azzopardi’s many talents – but with Castillo, Clare Azzopardi once again proves herself as one of the most engaging and full-rounded authors in the local sphere.
A novel about gender, motherhood, the reverberating and unresolved echoes of political violence past, Castillo always remains very much a detective novel through and through, albeit one with a ‘twist’, relegating the conventional cloak-and-dagger and noir trappings to the embedded fictional detective, but leaving plenty of work for Amanda to do.
This, to my mind, is the true strength of Azzopardi’s novel: never once does she drop the ball, never once does she forget to do the necessary TLC that ensures this aesthetic cohesion that makes the novel such a solidly held-together experience. The ‘Castillo’ chapters aren’t just a clever garnish, they are firmly rooted to it all. The spectre of violence made manifest. If journalism is the first draft of history, the detective is its first archaeologist, digging up bones marked with streaks of fresh flesh.
Here’s hoping Castillo is translated thick, wide and fast.
Some shameless self-promotion now, though not unrelated to the author under discussion. Last year, we’ve had the privilege of adapting a short story by Clare Azzopardi into a short film, and we brought in a landmark work by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to help along.
‘Camilla‘ was co-written by its director Stephanie Sant and myself, produced by Martin Bonnici of Shadeena Entertainment and made possible thanks to the National Book Council (Malta), after it won its Short Film Contest in 2018. The source material is taken from Azzopardi’s award-winning, female-centered anthology Kulhadd Halla Isem Warajh, and in adapting the story I did a bit of archaeology of my own, calling up Laura from Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ to serve as an audience stand-in and ultimately, protagonist, in the interest of keeping the enigma at the root of the titular character intact.
Both roles were played with sensitivity, grace and quiet potency by Steffi Thake and Irene Christ, and I couldn’t be happier with the end result.
‘Camilla’ is now free for all to see on YouTube, and I hope you enjoy it.
The life of the freelance writer can be nasty, brutish and long… at least it certainly feels that way as the deadline trenches continue to spew up new nasties and your trusted friends and allies get lost on the way, or are thrown into their own mix of churny nastiness.
All of this is to say that I haven’t quite been able to keep this blog up and updated as often as I’d wished (a perennial excuse/complaint by those of my ilk), which this time was particularly regretful given the awesome stuff that lies ahead.
Thanks to the kind collaboration/collusion between Merlin Publishers and the Consulate General of the Republic of Malta, I was able to say “yes” to the kind offer by the organisers behind the Toronto International Festival of Authors, a truly prestigious literary event that this year will feature guests like Angela Davis, John Irving, Adam Foulds, Adam Gopnik, Emma Donoghue and a plethora of intimidating-sounding others for what will be its 40th anniversary edition.
It still feels a little bit unreal to me, and I’m sure it’ll remain so right until we actually land in the beautiful-seeming city after what will be my first trip outside of Europe.
The grounding factor are of course the events I will be participating in, which are the following:
Reading & Conversation: Karen McBride, Teodor Reljić and Drew Hayden Taylor
Saturday, October 26, 2019 – 4:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre
These three authors examine the hidden secrets with which we live, in family life and in our hometowns. Karen McBride presents her first novel, Crow Winter. She is an Algonquin Anishinaabe writer from the Timiskaming First Nation in the territory that is now Quebec. Drew Hayden Taylor presents Chasing Painted Horses. He is a playwright, short story writer, novelist, journalist, activist for Indigenous rights and TV scriptwriter. Teodor Relijić presents Two. He is a writer of fiction, a freelance feature writer, and culture editor and film critic at MaltaToday. The conversation will be moderated by Wendy O’Brien. Hosted by Tunchai Redvers.
Europe On Tour: Reading & Reception
Sunday, October 27, 2019 – 7:00 PM Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre
No passport needed to meet, hear and learn from the European Union’s leaders in contemporary literature at this special event. For the second year running, the Festival is thrilled to present this rare chance to hear acclaimed works recited live in the languages in which they were originally written and in the authors’ own voices.
Spotlighted countries include Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. This event is presented in conjunction with the European Union National Institutes for Culture. Written English translations will be available. Readings will be followed by a licensed reception and the event will be hosted by Laetitia Delemarre.
Featured authors include:
Kai Aareleid (Burning Cities),
Esad Babačić (Every Child is Beautiful When Born),
Helena Janeczek (The Girl with the Leica),
Wilfried N’Sondé (Concrete Flowers),
Inês Pedrosa (Still I Miss You),
Rein Raud (The Death of a Perfect Sentence),
Teodor Reljić (Two),
Teresa Solana (The First Prehistoric Serial Killer),
Benedek Totth (Dead Heat),
and Gabriela Ybarra (The Dinner Guest).
Authors on Tour at Union Station – Day 3
Monday, October 28, 2019 – 12 PM – 2 PM
The Toronto International Festival of Authors has partnered with Toronto’s Union Station once again to bring spirited author readings to Toronto’s busiest commuter interchange.
Hosted by Antanas Sileika, the events will spotlight a select lineup of authors, as well as a “Books On Tour” Library of favourite Festival titles of the past 40 years, which passersby are welcome to take home with them free of charge. Each author will present from their latest book on the topic of “travel” or “journeys” and interact with the audience. The event will take place in the West Wing of Union Station, immediately off the Great Hall at street level.
The Malta Book Festival
A beloved event that is only growing from strength to strength with each passing year (much like Malta Comic Con, whose second day I’ll be attending pretty much after my Toronto-via-Rome plane back home lands on the Luqa gravel), this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival is especially exciting for me.
Its chosen theme of speculative fiction is obviously close to my heart, and it is for this reason that its organising body, the National Book Council, kindly allowed me to pitch a couple of names into the ring of their then-burgeoning programme.
Happily, this resulted in both Jon Courtenay Grimwoodand Kali Wallace to be selected for participation in a few events at the festival, both of whom I’ve met and made friends with at Cons in the Scarborough and Helsinki, respectively. They round out a set of international guests which also include Dave Rudden and none other than Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. My contributions to the Malta Book Festival, which runs from November 6-10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, will be the following:
I will be interviewing Kali Wallace on November 7th at 18:00about her already-prolific and eclectic range of novels, which span from horror to sci-fi, YA to middle-grade to adult fiction, and the latest of which has just been optioned for a big-budget film adaptation.
Official event description:
U.S. author Kali Wallace will be talking to Teodor Reljić about her already prolific output, which includes the Young Adult cult favourites ‘Shallow Graves’, ‘The Memory Trees’ and ‘City of Islands’. Their talk will touch upon the dynamics of genre fiction and publishing, the difference between writing for young adults and adults, the legacy of space-horror thrillers such the ‘Alien’ franchise and their influence on her most recent work and debut novel for adults, ‘Salvation Day’. Because it is only right, a portion of the conversation will also be dedicated to a consideration of both interlocutors’ undeniably adorable fluffy cats.
Prior to that, I will also be participating in the inaugural edition of the Literary Speed Dating event, which according to the National Book Council, “will take place at the Authors’ Hub, a space specifically designated for one-to-one meetings during the Malta Book Festival.
“The idea behind this initiative is to get individuals from the public to meet you as an exhibitor/participant/important stakeholder in the book industry at the Malta Book Festival, in a setting which is more private than the usual ‘from behind the counter at the stand in a festival attended by thousands”.
My own slot will be on Wednesday, 6 November from 17:30 to 18:30, right before the Festival’s annual conference, which will this year feature Loranne Vella, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Kali Wallace and Dave Rudden in a discussion of the ‘strange new worlds’ propsed by sci-fi and fantasy fiction, as moderated by author and translator Mark Anthony Fenech.
Okay, time to strap in, literally and metaphorically. Hope to meet a bunch of you in the flesh!
I’ve waited for the reviews to form a satisfyingly diverse cluster before putting this together, as it’s been an interesting couple of months at the movies. But here they are; some of my recent pieces of film criticism for MaltaToday, liberally cherry-picked and in no particular order.
Which is, of course, a total lie. Cherry-picking implies selection, and selection implies intention, which implies order of some kind.
In this case, we’ve see a few glittering diamonds in the rough just about rising up for air in an atmosphere suffused by entertaining, but equally suffocating, blockbuster fare.
“Though an epic send-off may have felt like a foregone conclusion Marvel Studio’s unprecedentedly long-running superhero saga, the mammoth achievement that’s ensued is certainly no casual fluke. Carefully calibrated to give each character and sub-plot their due while never short-changing its emotional content, Avengers: Endgame gives itself the licence of sizeable running time to tell a story that is part dirge, part mind-bending time travelling heist and part meditation on friendship and power. The cinematic landscape may have been changed by these colourfully-clad supermen and women in debatable ways, but the byzantine byways of its interconnected stories clicking so satisfyingly together is certainly no mean feat.”
“More ambitious and tighter than his barnstorming Get Out in equal measure, Jordan Peele’s second stab at film-making may have some rips at its seams, but in the long run makes for a thrilling feature with something to say. Satisfyingly structured and laced with nuggets of ambiguity that will burrow through the brain, it’s offers a full-bodied experience of genre cinema that feels sorely needed in a landscape oversaturated with superheroes and remakes.”
“Expanding on its world with a tightly-focused and clever simplicity that allows more than ample room for its trademark bloodbath-balletics to shine through, the third installment of the little action franchise that could continues to plough its way through the competition with violent, witty elan. A satisfying ride from start to finish, Reeves and Stahelski’s baby has grown up and taken the world by storm, while betraying zero signs of franchise fatigue so far.”
“Though lacking polish in certain areas and never quite managing to resist the temptation to stuff every frame with ‘local colour’, Limestone Cowboy remains an engaging and effective dramedy that successfully alchemises quirky Maltese mores into a feature of universal appeal.”
“While offering an unflinching and deeply upsetting gaze into the unequal power structures of capitalism both past and present, Happy as Lazzaro also manages to be a rich and rewarding fable, limned with a magical glow that keeps cynicism and hopelessness at bay. Mixing in a team of first-time actors and non-professionals with established names, Alice Rohrwacher creates something of a minor miracle, which is likely to remain resonant for years to come.”
Though the bulk of this weekend was taken up by that annual and very much welcome celebration of rock, punk and metal in my very own adoptive hometown — Rock the South — I also got the chance to make a happy pit stop over at the national broadcasting studio to record an episode of literary radio show Taħt il-Qoxra (‘Under the Cover’), hosted by Rachelle Deguara and broadcast on Sunday on Radju Malta.
Joined by my co-writer on ‘Camilla’, Stephanie Sant (also the short film’s director), we delved into how the short film came to be; from my seizing of that rare and frenzied jolt of inspiration that led me to combine Clare Azzopardi’s subtle-but-cutting short story with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla‘ as I jotted down the treatment; to Stephanie lifting the lid — somewhat — on the historically intricate backstory that served as our ‘true north’ for two key characters.
Asked about how the indigenous film industry can up both productivity and quality, we jumped on the chance to evangelise the importance of having a solid script, while lamenting the prioritisation of film servicing over production in the local sphere.
All of this is burying the lede somewhat for me though… since the interview had to be done in Maltese given the programme’s format, approach and target audience, I couldn’t exactly wing it. But a spot of rehearsal earlier on seems to have done the trick, and the ensuing interview flowed along quite nicely, I felt.
Towards the end, I also got a chance to talk a little bit about my debut novel Two — which is about Malta but is in fact written in English — just a few weeks shy of its fifth birthday. I’m glad that people are still keen to hear about its evolution and what it means to me, which is a great deal, even if projects like ‘Camilla’ are shinier and more exciting right about this point in time.
On that note, watch this space for news on future screenings of ‘Camilla’ — more info as soon as we have it, which will hopefully be pretty soon.