Home > General Literature, Psychology & Psychotherapy, The Empty Chair > The Empty Chair – A Novel Thirty-Four Years in the Making

The Empty Chair – A Novel Thirty-Four Years in the Making

It wouldn’t be strictly true to say The Empty Chair took me thirty-four years to write – I hardly did a stroke of work on the project between 1988 and ’98, the period in which I was trying to reinvent myself as a ‘horror/crime’ writer – but that span of around a third of a century was necessary for the work to find its final form, and there could be no shortcuts.

Just like in the marvellous Richard Linklater film Boyhood, which was shot over twelve years, with the actors ageing in sync with their fictional counterparts, so the narrative of The Empty Chair had to make a real-time journey, from Steve Penhaligon’s Bonfire Night vision on November 5th 1986 to the final narrator’s ruminations as an ‘OAP’ in March 2020, just before the pandemic wiped out life as we knew it…

The Empty Chair is indeed a tale that expanded in the unfolding of its many iterations, and at 216,000 words it’s almost certainly the longest single work I shall compose. What’s it about? Well…a hell of a lot of things…I sketched a complex Venn diagram of its many strands and themes, but it’s too fiddly to reproduce in palatable form just at the moment, so instead I made a more straightforward list of some of the issues covered: Abuse. Anxiety. Alzheimer’s. Depression. Delusion. Obsession. Paranoia. Psychotherapy. Psychosis. Psychedelia. Incest. Nightmares. Self-harming. Sex addiction. Catholicism. Spiritualism. Synchronicity. Suicide. Murder. Death. Life after death. And all that in a novel which focuses strongly on the British film and television industry in the ’80s and ’90s…

Is it the story of my life…? Well, no, not really. It is not a roman à clef. I aimed to make sure the story pans out significantly differently to my own. But…it does contain many scenes that are taken from life, some that are light fictionalisations of real events, and many more that are complete fabrications. Which is which? Only I know for sure, and like in my previous books there is constant game playing with the relationship of truth and fiction, which layers-up into metafiction as the story progresses and those nudge-wink moments and intertextuality increase more and more. The fundamental idea, developing on from The Mad Artist and Literary Stalker, is that the act of telling a story about your life eventually becomes the story itself.

But then again The Empty Chair starts off with a most naturalist linear plot, bearing only the subtlest postmodern touches; unlike with Literary Stalker, the meta-element is a very slow burn. So, ambitious television director Steve Penhaligon goes into therapy to sort out his issues, but from the start there’s a question about his motivation…Obviously his issues are real and need sorting, but the dramatic potential of therapy appeals to the filmmaker in Steve, and he sees therapy as a device, a template through which he can construct a movie screenplay about a troubled life, and hopefully get to direct the film, elevating himself out of his current humdrum journeyman employment in TV.

Here the ‘historiographic’ element comes into play, with 1980s and ’90s TV brought to life in great detail and real personages coming on stage – such as John Thaw, playing Chief Inspector Morse, and Michael Grade as head of Channel 4. I worked in TV myself in this period, so some of the material comes first hand, but much of Steve’s later adventures in the industry were actualised through research. Here again the game playing between truth and fiction becomes manifest, for the early Steve could well be myself, but the later Steve clearly could not, as the coefficient of fiction ramps up more and more.

Talking about influences, a key work that features in the story is Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, which had a profound impact on the two of us – Steve and myself. Both the content – a writer, mired in illness, using therapy and storytelling to get out of jail – and the form – a nostalgic lip-synch musical – are guiding lights.

Another film piece, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, with its Chinese box structure, also played a part, as it did in Literary Stalker. And John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, book and film, become intertextualised in the later sections, with important things happening in Exeter and Lyme Regis.

But the most profound influence was a book I read in conjunction with Literary Stalker, just as I was finishing the writing, so it didn’t impact on that work. In exploring the genre of ‘metacrime’ – if that qualifies as a genre – I stumbled upon The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by Cameron McCabe, a 1937 ‘Golden Age of Crime’ novel. In the first instance it’s about the ‘murder’ of actress Estella Lamare, but progressively through different retellings of the event from multiple perspectives, doubt of veracity is cast everywhere, and it becomes clear that this is no ordinary crime story but a postmodern exercise somewhat in the manner of Borges and Nabokov. A further rug-pull is introduced when a certain A. B. C. Müller enters in order to deconstruct the many skeins of plot that have just dubiously unfolded.

I was enchanted and intrigued by this novel, thinking it was so far ahead of its time for a pre-war piece, more in line with the playful metafiction of the 1960s and ’70s – Pynchon, Barth, Fowles, Brautigan, Vonnegut. It was also amazingly simpatico with Literary Stalker, both in the layering of story and in the postmodern use of crime archetypes, such as the all-knowing ‘Inspector’ figure. I thought about it a lot as I finished off the first draft of Literary Stalker, in a joyful creative surge over the summer of 2016 – 45,000 words in a little over two months – and then my girlfriend and I attended the Gatcombe Horse Trials on a wonderful early August day…and whilst looking across the colourfully populated vista of the park with Princess Anne’s house in the background, it all came to me as a oneness…the new historiographic metafictional version of The Empty Chair…everything…backwards actually – End, Middle, Beginning – in around three or four minutes. Luckily I had a notebook and pen in my pocket.

Now available on Amazon stores worldwide. More info here: The Empty Chair

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