Tag Archives: Phaedra Patrick

An Interview with Phaedra Patrick

5 May
Phaedra Patrick is the author of the novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.

Phaedra Patrick is the author of the novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.

Phaedra Patrick studied art and marketing and has worked as a stained glass artist, film festival organizer and communications manager. She is a prize-winning short story writer and now writes full time. She lives in the UK with her husband and son. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is her debut novel.

To read an exercise on setting up happy endings, inspired by The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, click here.

In this interview, Patrick discusses how to set a character off on a quest, happy endings, and using coincidence in a novel.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with the main character, Arthur, deciding to go on a quest. It’s a decision that is part of a long tradition of quest stories that is alive and well as shown by The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; Eat, Pray, Love, and Wild. The difficulty, I would imagine, in writing such a story is that you need a reason to push the character out the door. Did you always know that Arthur would find the charm bracelet? Or did he begin as a character in search of a reason to go searching?

Phaedra Patrick

The charm bracelet idea came to me first, as I showed my young son my own bracelet. I write short stories too, so I liked the idea that each charm would be like a short story in its own right, then there would be a thread linking them all together, like a bracelet. I then had to find the right character to discover the bracelet and to set off on the journey to find out more about it. I thought it would be interesting if it was an older gentleman, who was rather set in his ways, and who I could take out of his comfort zone to go on this search. One of my favourite exercises is to write down the ten worst things that could happen to your character, then to explore how they’d react if these happened. And that’s what I did with Arthur.

Michael Noll

One question that often comes up in my writing classes—especially with college undergraduates—is “Why must stories be so sad?” The “literary” novels and stories that they’re reading tend to end unhappily. (One caveat: this isn’t really true of the fantasy and science fiction novels they read.) So, I was struck as I read this novel how its emotional arc is pretty much always oriented toward a happy ending—and it’s to the book’s strength. The book jacket even says that it’s a “joyous celebration of life’s infinite possibilities.” What was required—in dreaming up the novel, in its early chapters—to get it moving in a happy, satisfying direction?

Phaedra Patrick

I believe in happy endings! And in order for the story to be happy at the end, it kind of needs to be the opposite (at least in places) at the beginning, so the character can go on his/her transformative journey. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper has been described as a kind of fable and even compared to a fairy story. A lot of fables or fairy tales traditionally start with the character in an unhappy place—Bambi’s mother dies, Cinderella is ill-treated by her step-sisters, etc. So I had to put Arthur in a bad place to make things right for him in the end. It was a fine balance not to make him too self-pitying, but as soon as I introduced his neighbour, Bernadette, then this brought along humour to lift the first couple of chapters.

Michael Noll

I had the pleasure of moderating a recent panel on writing that included Alexander Chee, and he talked about how coincidence is often frowned upon by writers, and so he wanted to write a book with a lot of it (and did, in The Queen of the Night). Your novel is full of coincidence; I suppose these moments (such as the ease with which Arthur finds the people he’s looking for) might be unrealistic, but they’re also hugely entertaining. How do you approach coincidence in your writing? How do you manage to explain a plot point enough for the reader to buy it but not overexploit it until the reader is suspicious?

Phaedra Patrick

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is Phaedra Patrick's first novel, and it's been called "tender, insightful, and surprising."

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is Phaedra Patrick’s first novel, and it’s been called “tender, insightful, and surprising.”

I think because the book had to link up eight charms then there had to be a rather strong element of coincidence, or else Arthur would just discover the first charm and then get stuck! It’s also a story rather than a real-life account, so it does invite readers to suspend disbelief a little and get swept along with it. For quite a while I pondered on whether readers would believe there was a phone number engraved on the elephant charm, but then I decided that Arthur had to get his first lead from somewhere, and that this was the story I wanted to tell. I also ensured that Arthur found out about the charms in a variety of ways—word of mouth, letter, photo, a receipt, family, etc., and at one point he even gets stuck in his search. I think this helps to make the coincidences more believable. It is a difficult balance though.

Michael Noll

Near the end of the book, Arthur has a conversation with a woman named Sonny Yardley. I don’t want to give anything away to readers, but Sonny’s response to Arthur’s questions is strikingly different from what he’s encountered before. Did you always know the scene would play out like this? Or did you sense that the novel needed a kind of unexpected hard turn to shake the reader a bit?

Phaedra Patrick

We know that Miriam led a secret life before she and Arthur married, so there had to be a rather big reason she kept this from him during 40 years of marriage. And it was unlikely to be a happy reason! So when Arthur finally speaks to Sonny, the conversation is serious and upsetting, as it needs to be considering the subject. I actually didn’t know what Miriam’s secret was until this part of the book, and I found out at the same time as Arthur. I had to have faith in my writing and plough on with the storyline in the hope that Miriam’s secret would reveal itself to me, and thankfully it did.

May 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set Up a Happy Ending

3 May
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is Phaedra Patrick's first novel, and it's been called "tender, insightful, and surprising."

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is Phaedra Patrick’s first novel, and it’s been called “tender, insightful, and surprising.”

In a workshop I teach, a student recently pointed out that a lot of stories we’d read had sad endings. This prompted a discussion of whether it’s possible to write a happy ending; it is, of course, but it’s not necessarily easy. Some writers are not temperamentally inclined toward uplifting or positive conclusions. Some are. But what if your nature runs toward difficult endings but you want to send your characters and readers away from the last page with joy in the hearts? How can you tilt a narrative in favor of a happy ending?

A great example of a novel that begins and ends this way is Phaedra Patrick’s novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper. You can listen to the opening pages at Mira Harlequin’s website.

How the Novel Works

We meet the novel’s main character, Arthur Pepper, on the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death. He begins sorting through her things and discovers a charm bracelet that he’s never seen before. He decides to track down the source of each charm, and this quest provides the plot of the novel. Arthur is British, as is his creator, Phaedra Patrick, and so astute readers may sense similarities with the recent British novels The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and These Foolish Things, which inspired the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Both are about older characters on quests, and both end happily. Certainly, the title of Patrick’s novel suggests a happy ending. The word charm has positive connotations, as does curious. And yet the novel’s premise doesn’t automatically guarantee a happy ending. After all, Arthur has learned that his wife led a life that he knew nothing about. There is plenty he could discover about her that would make him miserable.

So, why does the reader feel quite certain, after reading a short ways into the novel, that things will turn out all right? The answer, in part, is in the way the conflict and mystery are framed.

When Arthur tracks down the person who gave his wife the first charm, a nice guy in India who had a crush on Arthur’s wife, here is Arthur’s reaction:

Arthur knew nothing about this part of his wife’s life. But he knew this was the same woman that they had both loved. Miriam’s laughter did sound like tiny bells. She did have a bag of marbles, which she gave to Dan. He was still reeling from astonishment, but he could hear the longing in Mr. Mehra’s voice.

The news that another man had desired his wife could lead to a lot of reactions, many of them not so pleasant. Yet Arthur immediately “felt a glow in his stomach.” This is important: the revelation adds to Arthur’s sense of the world—the basic nature of the place where he lives and the people he’s trusted. The revelation doesn’t cause him to lose all sense of certainty. Of course, it could do that later. Arthur could find out that his wife kept men on every continent and lied to him every day. But (not really a spoiler), that’s not what happens. Arthur’s mental landscape of the world remains intact; in fact, it’s been enlarged and given new areas to explore.

The second part of the novel’s frame shapes how Arthur acts on this news:

Arthur was surprised to feel a tiny kernel of excitement taking root in his stomach. He had found out something about his wife’s past life and his inquisitive nature was compelling him to find out more. The only feelings he experienced these days were sadness, disappointment and melancholy, so this felt new.

Shortly after this passage, Arthur decides to take a trip—and that trip begins the story of the novel.

At this point in the novel, this reaction seems of a piece with what we expect. But, again, it’s not the only possible reaction. Arthur could be momentarily astonished at the news—and then sink back into melancholy. Or he could feel excited and decide to take a trip—only to break his hip or get his credit card hacked. In the other words, the world isn’t required to play along. But, in this case, it does. That’s the nature of the world of this novel.

I suppose a skeptic could say, “But that’s not how life is,” but a great many people are happy, which means the world does, in fact, play along with our hopes and dreams sometimes.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up a happy ending, using The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick as a model:

  1. Give your character a problem. Arthur’s wife has died, and it’s the anniversary of her death. That’s a situation that would be problematic for anyone—a big problem, more severe than, say, a stubbed toe. Don’t take it easy on your character. Give him or her something that is difficult to grapple with.
  2. Introduce revelatory news. The goal is to make your character see the problem in a new way. Arthur finds the charm bracelet, makes a phone call, and learns that his wife had a completely unknown life before he met her. What piece of news or information would cause your character to suddenly view the problem in a different, unexpected way?
  3. Make the news affirm the character’s basic sense of the world. Arthur doesn’t suddenly suspect that his wife was an imposter in their marriage. The woman he knew is the same woman he learns about; the identity is consistent throughout. So, don’t scramble the character’s understanding of the world or the people in it. Let the character maintain a basic sense of how things work. This lets readers see the character as wise and trustworthy. That said, the character’s sense of the world doesn’t need to be positive (for example, the belief that people are good and things will work out). Every character’s happy ending will be different.
  4. Instead, let the news expand that sense of the world. Arthur doesn’t question essential things about his wife, but he does learn that there are unknown dimensions to her. How can you use the revelation to suggest that there is something a character doesn’t know—but will want to know?
  5. Let the character act on the revelation, and let the world cooperate. Arthur pursues the thing he doesn’t know. How can your character pursue his or her own mystery? Because the world plays along, readers begin to suspect that the character will find answers to the mystery. Of course, it’s always possible for the story to take a permanent turn for the worse, but the longer that the character’s sense of the world is confirmed and the world cooperates, it becomes more and more likely that the character will get what he or she desires—and for most characters, this means a happy ending.

The goal is to set up an ending by framing the story’s conflict and world in a way that makes a happy ending more likely than a disturbing one.

Good luck.

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