Since my seventh book, Apple Tree Yard, became a BBC One drama, I’ve now become the author of the sort of novel that gets on the telly: and the way that has changed people’s perception of my work is notably apparent now that novel number eight, Black Water, is out in paperback. The first thing anyone asks me about it is, ‘So is this one going to be on TV too?’
I started Black Water in 2012 – before Apple Tree Yard was even published, let alone on television – during a visit to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival on the island of Bali in Indonesia. I was staying in a hotel where the ‘rooms’ were isolated wooden bungalows perched halfway up a hillside in a valley above the Ayung River, some forty minutes drive from Ubud. I was suffering from terrible jet-lag – the fantastic cocktails at the festival parties probably weren’t helping – and lay awake every night listening to the monkeys and geckos and night insects, the sounds of a tropical night so different from the car alarms and drunks that keep me awake at home in central London. On the third or fourth night, an image came to me of a man, lying awake, listening for monsoon rain, convinced that men with machetes were going to climb the hillside and kill him. I called him Harper, for no good reason other than I liked the sound of it – although I felt instinctively that wasn’t his real name. I started to think about him a lot.
Early on in the novel, it becomes clear that what Harper is really afraid of is not what is going to happen, but something he himself has done: it is gradually revealed that he was in Indonesia thirty years before and nurses a dark secret. Now he has returned, the ghosts of his past await him.
Almost a year after that beginning, Apple Tree Yard was published and thanks to its selection for the Richard & Judy Book Club became a top ten bestseller. It was optioned for television by Kudos TV, who made Spooks and Broadchurch – and thus began what was, without doubt, the most exciting and downright weird experience of my career. With the great good fortune of Emily Watson in the lead role, it went out on the coveted BBC One Sunday night slot and all at once I found myself, in the words of the The Sun, as the ‘famous author of the controversial bonkbuster.’
Being on the TV brought me to the attention of a whole new audience that had never heard of me before and Faber’s TV tie in edition promptly soared up the charts – but it was also a terrific boost for Black Water. Is this one going to be on TV too? Well, not in the same way as Apple Tree Yard, that’s for certain. For a start, it has a global canvas: it is set mostly in Indonesia, across three decades of its history but there are also significant sections set in Los Angeles in 1950 during the Civil Rights era and Amsterdam in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War. The main character Harper, a mixed-race Dutch/Indonesian, appears in the novel as a small boy, a young mercenary working as a courier for the CIA and a man in middle age looking back at his past. There are riots in Jakarta and scenes set in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. Your typical BBC One Sunday night drama, it most definitely ain’t.
The possibilities for television drama have exploded in recent years: and it’s true that the deep pockets of Netflix or Amazon could handle the subject matter of Black Water, but such a novel is, historically, more suited for film than television. There is also the difficult issue that, while its canvas is global, the actual narrative arc of Black Water is that of one individual coming to terms with the events of his past. That’s a story with a lot of interiority, as the screen people say. Black Water would have to be significantly reconfigured for the screen in a way that Apple Tree Yard wasn’t.
What the whole process has made me realise is that – at the risk of sounding a little obvious – novels are novels because they are novelistic. There is a kind of in-depth character analysis that you can do in the pages of a book that is very difficult to translate to screen: your narrative arc can be nothing more dramatic than your main character realising something about himself or herself.
That said, that’s also what I thought about Yvonne in Apple Tree Yard, a first-person narrative in which a woman who has an affair and sees her life spiral out of control. In the novel, Yvonne gets to think a lot about what kind of person she is. In many ways, she does more thinking and less doing than Harper – who at least gets to kill a few people and nearly be killed himself on more than one occasion. For all the geographical differences between the two books, the way Apple Tree Yard translated to screen has made me realise that the two books have more in common than is immediately apparent. Is there any such thing as an unadaptable novel? Probably not, as long as the programme makers are imaginative enough. Will this one be on the telly too? It’s not out of the question – but I’m glad that the screen version of Apple Tree Yard had not been made or broadcast while I was writing Black Water, as the temptation to provide a telly-friendly follow-up might have become overwhelming. There is nothing more undermining for a novelist’s concentration than the thought that people might be reading your book for dramatization: and few things irritate me more when reading a book myself than the suspicion that the author wrote it with one eye on a film deal: lots of dialogue, lots of short, inter-cutting scenes. If that is an overwhelming imperative then the author should be writing for screen in the first place.
A novelist’s task is, first and foremost, to write the best book she can with no regard for how it might be published, marketed, reviewed, promoted or adapted: that’s someone else’s job, not hers. Then if adaptation comes, it should be treated in the same way you would treat a literary prize: as a wonderful boost for your book, an arbitrary gift, a bit of money: ‘posh bingo’, as Julian Barnes once memorably called the Man Booker. Be grateful for the increased sales and feel astonished when The Sun decides to write about you. Then do your level best to blank out the white noise of all that, and take a rash nosedive into the blank pages of the next book. Is this one going to be on telly too? Who knows?