Ben Schott on writing ‘racy’ scenes, the element of surprise and Jeeves and the Leap of Faith
Ben Schott was best known for the hugely popular Schott’s Miscellany series until 2018, when he became a novelist. Described as his homage to the works of P. G. Wodehouse, Schott’s Jeeves and The King of Clubs was published with the blessing of the Wodehouse estate and received rapturous reviews. Schott keeps Bertie and Jeeves in their 1930s setting, but brings a faster pace, detailed endnotes, and a twist of espionage to satisfy the modern reader. The 2020 sequel, Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, is equally fabulous: deliciously witty and full of wordplay and laugh-out-loud lines.
I spoke to Ben about his flirting with ‘raciness’ in Wodehouse’s world, writing on the New Jersey Transit and how he surprised himself to invent one of his funniest scenes.
Having written two novels now, you’re probably more aware of where you naturally diverge from a Wodehousian style. Is that something you consider when you are reworking your writing?
The honest answer is no. First of all, I’m not a Wodehouse expert: I’m a fan. And secondly, I didn’t go back and read a lot of Wodehouse. I used the books, I used Fry and Laurie because they’re remarkable, and Clive Exton. A lot of the lines everyone loves in the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, they’re actually Clive Exton’s. And the radio — Michael Hordern’s Jeeves is superb. So it was this kind of mélange.
It’s very odd. You have to have all of your knowledge and all of your love of it, and put it aside and then write. It’s a bit like when you do essays or interviews, you have all these notes, and then you don’t even look at them when you’re writing the piece. That’s just in the background, that just gives you stability. And that’s why the endnotes are there, in order to show my working: where I come into it and where I’m borrowing from Wodehouse. To acknowledge my borrowing, but then to show there were also other inputs that made the tapestry.
The action scenes in your books, like the car chase in King of Clubs, aren’t found in Wodehouse. Are there other authors or films you’re drawing on here?
There’s a car-chase-cum-snooker-game in King of Clubs. And I suppose, now I think about it, I was actually slightly influenced by the golf game in Goldfinger. That golf game between Bond and Goldfinger with Oddjob, it’s like a car chase golf game. So I would say Goldfinger, for turning something that’s a non-car chase into a car chase.
Then there’s a scene in King of Clubs where Bertie’s in the lingerie shop, and people keep on coming in. That is an homage to Edward Gorey, The Curious Sofa. Edward Gorey basically wrote a pornographic cartoon book, but with totally no porn in it. It’s incredibly suggestive and absolutely outrageously filthy, but entirely innocent at the same time. You’ve got to be careful with Wodehouse, you can’t be too louche, but equally, you want to have a certain sort of edge. Can I write something that’s a bit racy but nothing rude is said, where everything is suggested? Partly it’s a sense of ‘Can this be done?’ Can you introduce something racy into Wodehouse?
Every so often you’ll include a modern reference, such as the line ‘‘‘Right,” said Fred.”’ Why do you do this?
I’m glad you noticed that. ‘Right said Fred, let’s have a cup of tea’ is a line from the song. There are lots of anachronisms that hopefully, if you get, you’re amused by.
Why not? It’s just amusing to write. If you’re picking characters’ names, or if you have to name a song of the period, why not name one that P. G. Wodehouse wrote? If you’re naming a hotel in Cambridge, why not find the hotel that was there at the time, and try and get it right and get pictures of it? There’s a whole thing that no one spotted: Pinke’s Academy [in Leap of Faith] is based on Greene’s Academy. There’s a whole backstory of truth about Greene’s Academy in Cambridge.
It’s really just to amuse myself. But I genuinely think if you don’t make yourself laugh, you’re not going to make anyone else laugh. There’s one line every now and again, I read it and it just makes me laugh. It’s not because I think I’m a genius. It just tickles me. And you have to assume if it tickles you then at least you have an audience of one who finds it funny.
The film critic Mark Kermode has a theory that a film that looks like it was a lot of fun to make is usually not very fun to watch.
I couldn’t disagree more. One of the reasons I like 30 Rock is that you know they are having a blast. You can see it in their smiles. Film, I don’t know. If it’s Hamlet, maybe. Every time I try and write cynically it doesn’t work, which is why caricature and parody, I think, are dull.
You really have to love these characters. It’s pure joy to read because Wodehouse did love it. He absolutely loved it. You can’t fake it.
You’ve previously compared writing the novels to constructing a Heath Robinson machine. There’s the finely tuned prose, the complex plot and your historical research. How do you weave it all together?
Both of these books are structured over a week. Given that it’s a spy story it needed to take place in a constrained box, and it felt like the second one had to have the same rhythm. So then you have seven days, and each day you have to get up, have various meals, do something and go to bed. So you have to fill the day, and every day has to be roughly the same length. Then there are plot lines that take you through the overarching story: for example, you have to have the Jeeves disagreement plotline, there’s got to be a romantic plotline, there’s got to be an aunt plotline.
I was amazed how much I found myself typing and thinking ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was going to happen.’ There’s a line in Leap of Faith where Bertie’s at Matthew’s restaurant in Cambridge with Aunt Agatha. And I found myself typing, ‘Well, Bertie, do you want the good news or the bad news?’ At that stage, I had no idea what either of them were. The marriage with Vonka was part of it, but that’s already bad news. So then I had “You have to sack Jeeves”. So now we need to have a scene where she tries to sack Jeeves but doesn’t sack Jeeves in some way. That wasn’t in any of the original thoughts, but that created one of my favourite scenes, the horrific meal where Crawshaw pretends to be a bad butler in order for her to think that Jeeves is all right.
Wodehouse is the world’s greatest humourist, but I think plots were not his strongest point. He admits it — in one of the letters, he says, ‘I’ll send five quid to anyone who can send me a plot.’ But he also said something really interesting, which is, when you’ve got a scene, you give it everything you’ve got. So that scene with Crawshaw, coming in and going out and coming in again, at each stage getting worse and worse — you could have gone in and out in a couple of gags, but absolutely hammering it home, that’s part of the element of farce.
Now that you’ve written two Jeeves novels, have you refined the process to a point where the story comes to you faster? Or is it harder to come up with new set pieces?
They take a vast amount of work and refinement. Half of the joy for me is taking the reader into new places. So King of Clubs was all about private clubs. Obviously the Drones is a private club and so is the Junior Ganymede [Jeeves’s club], but there is also a private tailors; a private bank, Coutts or Hoares; then real clubs — the Athenaeum, the Travellers, the Reform.
The second book — Cambridge was fun, because again, it was a whole other world. So it could be Cambridge colleges, the Pitt, drinking games, the Loving Cup. It could then be the Union, Newmarket, plus the dodgy bookie, who is again based on real fact.
That’s why people read Wodehouse: you want to go into the sunlit uplands of Brinkley Court and you want to be in a club. You want that warm golden glow of ‘everything is just delicious’. When there’s reality in there, somehow that adds to the fun. The notion of this bizarre bookmaker called Leviathan, hopefully he’s fun. And then you realise, ‘Oh, my God, he did exist.’ I just think it shines more brightly, and I can’t quite work out why.
What is the working process with your editor like? Having put together this intricately plotted piece of work, I would be extremely precious about protecting it and making sure that everything stays in place.
Both my editors in the UK and the US were excellent. But, for the exact reason you say, it was essentially sort of done and handed in. There were a couple of stylistic questions, but you can’t really unpick it. There wasn’t a huge amount of editing, partly just because of the way the books are constructed and partly because I worked incredibly hard to try and get it right. Others can say whether I succeeded or not. It was a sort of monumentally outrageous thing to do. But it was their confidence that I could do it that helped me to just do it.
What about the Wodehouse estate? Did they read and approve it beforehand?
They obviously read it and approved it. But they were very happy. There were a couple of questions about certain words — ‘Would he use that word?’ — but they were very supportive and very generous.
It’s an incredible gift, to borrow the crown jewels. And they took a risk with someone who had never written a novel before. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not attempting to talk about the human condition, or write literature in a personal sense. It was more like solving this unbelievably complex puzzle.
How Wodehousian is your writing routine? Are you very regimented, as he was, or more flexible?
I wrote the original Spectator piece [that led to King of Clubs being commissioned] on the New Jersey Transit between Hamilton and Manhattan, which is the least Wodehousian thing: on a commuter train with everyone around shouting.
I think partly because I don’t consider myself a writer with a capital W, I think of writing like typesetting — it’s just a thing you do. So I can write in the back of a taxi. Some people can sleep anywhere, any time. I can’t, but I can write anywhere at any time. I think I’d rather be able to sleep anywhere.
It’s bizarre. I can write an entire scene in one go, and then I can spend days getting one linking paragraph right; five lines. For me, it’s often the linking passages. I’m not a Wodehouse expert, but I think he was less confident with dialogue (although it’s pretty damn incredible) than he was with his big prose pieces. So that’s another of the differences. There’s more action and more dialogue in mine. It just seemed to fit the pace more, rather than stopping and having long descriptions.
Is it important that Bertie is the narrator? I get the sense that very casual readers might not even be able to say the books are told from his viewpoint.
Absolutely, and I personally think this is the driving genius of the Jeeves and Wooster books. It’s POV.
One of the differences which people noted and some people liked less was that my Bertie is slightly more intelligent. There are all sorts of reasons why I think he’s smarter than people think, not least why would Jeeves hang around with him for eleven novels if he were a complete buffoon?
But the other reason why I think he’s smart — and this is the driving genius — is that it’s written from his point of view. The central joke is you have somebody telling you in the most glorious comic prose how stupid they are. If he really was stupid, it would be unreadable trash. It’s the classic self-deprecation, which is the salt of British humour, but also with a sense of amour-propre and a sense of ‘I’m smarter than people think I think I am’. If it was written from Jeeves’s point of view, the danger is it becomes cynical. The whole point is, it’s Bertie — you see the world through his eyes.
It’s also very convenient for him to maintain this aura of inadequacy because if he showed an ounce of capability, then allowances would be cut and his life would collapse.
That’s true, I hadn’t thought about that. And it’s a ‘hey, ho’ glass-half-fullness which is one of the reasons why it’s so pleasing. Nothing really bad ever happens.
One of the most interesting concepts is Spode. If Spode didn’t exist, the idea that I took the sunlit uplands of the Wooster oeuvre and said ‘I’m going to introduce a fascist’ — people would be like ‘What?’ It’s kind of stunning that Wodehouse did, but every Eden needs a snake, I suppose. Spode is such a fabulous character. He’s just such fun to write because he’s so glorious and so pompous. You need a foil and you sort of need it to be a little bit serious. I still find it completely remarkable that he introduced fascism into this world, however absurd.
With Leap of Faith ending on such a cliffhanger, surely you have ideas for further adventures?
I do. Sadly, I’m not the captain of the ship. The Wodehouse estate has a say, and the publishers have a say. So at the moment, the idea of a book three is unclear. But certainly I have thoughts as to where book three could go. There are like eleven things that were left hanging. I have thoughts, as you might imagine.
Interview by James Riding.
Ben Schott is the author of Schott’s Original Miscellany and its four sequels, which have been translated into twenty-one languages; six volumes of the yearbook Schott’s Almanac; and Schottenfreude. He divides his time between London and New York.
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