Paul Griffiths, born in Bridgend, Wales, is a well-known writer on contemporary and classical music whose other books include A Concise History of Western Music and The Penguin Companion to Classical Music. He has written the libretto for Elliott Carter's What Next? as well as two previous novels, Myself and Marco Polo and The Lay of Sir Tristram. Paul also writes reviews -- for ReadySteadyBook! His latest work is the sublime let me tell you.
Mark Thwaite: You write about music, you write words for music, and you write novels and stories -- are these domains all very separate to you, Paul, or do they overlap, intersect and support one another?
Paul Griffiths: All of this. To have had music in my life for so long must have had an effect on what I do, never mind what it is.
MT: Your novel let me tell you is written in the spirit of OuLiPo -- before we talk about your use of constraint, tell me why the OuLiPians interest you so much?
PG: If you keep to some form—some command, if you like—you come up with things you could never come up with by yourself.
There was a soldier at the table. Quite still. And I could see two letters on the table, where his hand lay on them. One of them must have come from his brother, the one that had gone away some months before. All this time he had his head cast down, so I could not see his eyes. I tell you it as I remember it. Do I have to say that? I did not know him from before, this soldier at the table with his head down. I do not know where he comes from.
MT: let me tell you uses only the words that Ophelia (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) utters throughout that play to retell her story. How did you land upon this conceit?
PG: It took me a long, long time. It was a long, long time and then he raised himself from the table and went to the window. He still had the letters in his hand, his left hand. His right he held over his eyes—to keep the sun out, I would say. It could have been, as well, that he had gone there to look for something. Something he had lost?
MT: Practically, how did you begin work on the composition hemmed in by such rules?
PG: He turned from the window. Now, at last, I could see his eyes. But I did not like to look at him in this state. He went to the table, left the letters there, and went out. I could see the door close from where I was. And that was all—that and the treads he made as he went up to bed. No more that day.
MT: Did you ever feel the desire to do away with your rules and write more "freely"? One can imagine what such rules prevent, but what did you find they enabled?
PG: You might think that when he had left I would have gone to look at the letters, but I did not. I promised I would not, and I like to do what I say. So I cannot tell you if one was indeed from his brother. I think it was. By the way, do we know how we make up words?
MT: Cut-up, Ophelia's words sometimes read like Beckett -- is Beckett important to you?
PG: More than I may say.
MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing let me tell you? How did you overcome it?
PG: ‘Nothing is hard if you have the wish and the will—and the time—to do it.’ I remember those words of his. This was before he lay his head down on the table, long before. I had been there some time.
MT: How do you write Paul? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
PG: By hand most of the time. Then I key it in. I go over things again and again. I do so now as I think of what to say to you. I had stayed there all that day and the day before. I was there all night, so that I would be there when he would come down.
MT: What did you discover (about yourself, about writing itself...) during the writing of let me tell you?
PG: It took so long that I cannot tell what came from it and what from other things. It took so long for me to know, without a doubt, he was the one. I had to be there as a watchman, if you will.
MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with their responses to your books? Have you learned anything from them?
PG: Was this meant to be a lesson, then? And if so, which of us was the master and which the scholar? I did keep my eyes on him most of the time, Mark.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" readers? Did you write specifically for them?
PG: No. What I do is, I hope, done for all. No doubt you will say I was on my own all that time, so how may I know what all this means to another? But I had him in my eyes, the soldier.
MT: What are you working on now Paul?
PG: More words, more things. On music and not.
MT: Who is your favourite writer?
PG: You have given one. There’s another without whom let me tell you could not have been done, as I do not have to tell you.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
PG: Remember that you have to find your own path. Remember that you will. It may take time.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
PG: I think the soldier’s come down now. I had better go and see.