Comedian Will Smith introduces his debut novel, Mainlander

Posted on 20th February 2015 by Will Smith
Will Smith, comedian and actor from such programmes as The Thick of It and Citizen Khan, on television, his influences and lessons learnt from Armando Iannucci.

I have spent the last twenty odd years as a writer and performer of comedy, on stage, television, radio and occasionally film. But writing a novel is less a sudden shift than a consistent ambition that has run parallel with my comedy career. As a teenager my heroes numbered Laurel and Hardy, John Cleese, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a comedian, I have a (possibly false) memory of this moment; watching Laurel and Hardy’s Perfect Day on BBC2 in my grandmother’s sitting room aged around five. And something similar was awoken in me ten years later when I opened The Catcher In The Rye in my O Level English class. I’d always been a reader, but up till that point it had been fairy tales, adventure books and the like. I’d never felt a character speak to me the way Holden Caufield did. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, it was freewheeling, seemingly unstructured, but it was the freshness and directness of that voice that struck me. I felt a connection with that character; I felt he had a life before and after the book, and that we were just dropping in on him for these events. In short, I believed in him, just as I later believed in Lucy Snowe, the Vincys, Casaubon, Bulstrode, Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw. It’s true of great comedy as much as fiction or drama; part of the appeal of any the enduring characters of British sitcom – Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, Alan Partridge, David Brent - is that they are compelling and believable. Even Edmund Blackadder and Baldrick, arch and knowing, fantastically reincarnated in different eras, and conversing within joke structure, were mourned as they ran out of that trench to their deaths.

I love that feeling of angst and joy when I finish something astounding. The end of any great book, or film, or television programme leaves me feeling stunned and elated, exhilarated and exhausted, and I often find myself actually speechless as I process what I just went through. I felt like that after certain episodes of The Sopranos, The Wire (those end of series montages are so well-earned and devastatingly haunting), Deadwood, The Shield, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Justified, and also when I finished Villette, Middlemarch, The Human Stain, Sabbath’s Theater, Moby Dick, The Corrections, Freedom, Anna Karenina, A Visit From The Goon Squad, The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Ingenious Pain.

Mainlander wears some of the influences of these books and shows, as well as shows I have worked on. It was important for me to apply some of what I’d learned from Armando Iannucci on The Thick Of It and Veep; that each scene has to move the story on, not to repeat moments. I was conscious of that with regard to the chapters. And as my grander plan took shape (Mainlander is planned as a cycle of books following these characters up to the present day) I began to think of the book and its sequels as I would a series of an American cable drama. That said, it’s hard to know if my writing is televisual, or if the really great television has become more novelistic. I recently re-watched the opening episodes of The Sopranos, still as great as I remembered, but they felt much more formatted than the later episodes, by which time the show had taken on the depth and stature of a state of the nation novel. It could go anywhere, follow any character, hit any tone, and still ring true. It works across the widest spectrum of any television show, from suspense to violence to poignancy to tragedy to comedy (the scenes with Tony and his mother are as beautifully written and played as any sitcom). It’s still television though, I’m not sure if a novel could sustain half a chapter as a dream sequence.

Tone wise I have attempted to move away from comedy, and range across the spectrum. Before Mainlander I had made three attempts at novels, although the first two were more novella length. There was a predictable coming of age novel set at a university not dissimilar to my own, then less predictably the diaries of a Flashman-esque eighteenth century lord. And then an attempt at contemporary satire, which hit the word length of a novel, but couldn’t be made to work. While I was awaiting feedback on that last attempt, which in my heart I knew would be negative, I started writing about a mainlander sitting on a cliff back on the island where I grew up. There was nothing comic about the premise or the tone, and I made a conscious decision not to rely on any of my supposed strengths. Obviously it’s not that “comic novel” is a tautology. A Confederacy of Dunces is a fantastic comic novel, but it’s also a great novel, just as Smiley’s People is both at the very top of its genre, but also its form. The reason I couldn’t get my comic novel to work is not because I couldn’t do the comedy, it’s because the comedy wasn’t embedded in the characters or the scenes, it was floating on the top. New Orleans was ingrained in John Kennedy Toole, no amount of research could match the fact of him having grown up in that city, and having seen the archetypes that fed Ignatius J. Reilly and his cohort of buffoons. Above all, what sings loud in that book is the dialogue, the cadences unique to each character, bringing them as alive as if you were sitting in the room with them. Kennedy Toole had been in those rooms, which is why he could put the reader into them so skilfully.

So with Mainlander I had a setting that I knew, and an era with which I was familiar. Hopefully I have filled it with characters that seem as real to the reader as they do to me.


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