An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Rhidian Brook
The Killing of Butterfly Joe (Paperback, Picador; 24 January 2019)
Rhidian Brook is the best-selling Welsh author and screenwriter of The Aftermath, now a major Hollywood movie produced by Ridley Scott and starring Acadamy Award nominee, Keira Knightley. He has recently published his fourth book, The Killing of Butterfly Joe which The Times called, “A wonderful entertainment. A thoroughly readable and appealingly eccentric book”
It’s narrated by the character of Llewellyn Jones, a young Welshman who travels to the USA in the 1980s and meets a charismatic butterfly salesman, Joe Bosco, (once described by the author as a cross between The Cat In The Hat and Zorba the Greek) who, in turn, is fascinated by Llew’s foreign accent. Joe offers Llew a job and promises to show him America and an epic adventure and the story goes from there.
Rhidian Brook is also adapting Butterfly Joe for the screen working with the producer of Room and The Theory of Everything.
AUTHORLINK: Mr Brook, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us at Authorlink. We loved The Killing of Butterfly Joe; it’s beautifully written, and the subtle interplay between comedy and tragedy keeps the reader guessing. We understand it’s based on the time you sold butterflies in glass cases in 32 states across America in your early twenties. You worked for a man who, as well as being a butterfly salesman, had ambitions to become America’s first Pope! That was in 1987, before the internet and mobile phones, when America had strained relationships with Russia and TV evangelists were at their height. Tell us why you felt your experience would make a good story?
“…I needed to mold something new from all this, without losing the madcap, crazy essence…”
BROOK: At the time I knew that I was having an extraordinary experience. I even said to the real Joe that I would like to write about it someday. It was nearly my first novel, but it ended up being my fourth. I am glad it is. The distance on the experience made it easier to recreate my own narrative from it. Rather than being beholden to actual events (albeit colorful and vivid). The real experience contained many tropes of certain rites of passage fiction: the innocent abroad, the need to experience and see, a larger than life central character, near-death experiences, the wide open spaces of America. But I needed to mold something new from all this, without losing the madcap, crazy essence: that of being a butterfly salesman in America!
AUTHORLINK: And you did it charmingly well! You are now adapting The Killing of Butterfly Joe for the screen, working with the producer of Room and The Theory of Everything. How exciting! We can’t wait to see it. What does that entail exactly given it’s such a character-driven book? Are you working on your own? If not, is it difficult to accept another’s opinion on how the story should be portrayed? Whom can you see playing Butterfly Joe and Llewellyn Jones?
“…anyone who has worked as a screenwriter will know that you have to take feedback.”
BROOK: This is the third novel to be adapted. I didn’t write the screenplay for Taliesin. I wrote a screenplay for The Aftermath but handed it over to others. This time I am a co-producer and this should give me more creative control. People think that writers in film have control but it’s a director’s medium. And then a producer’s! I have written a screenplay for Butterfly Joe and it was actually quite easy to adapt: it had a single point of view narration which translated to screen quite well. As to feedback, anyone who has worked as a screenwriter will know that you have to take feedback. Everyone gives notes! Your skin needs to be thick, but your mind needs to be open.
I am not going to play the casting game this time! Sorry.
AUTHORLINK: Not a problem. What very good advice for budding screenwriters! It seems you are a novelist with a silver-screen touch as even your first novel, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones (1996) was made into a film which won several international awards including best picture. What a remarkable feeling that must have been at the time. However, your most famous novel to date is of The Aftermath (2013), which is based on your grandfather’s experiences in postwar Germany. It has been translated into over 25 languages and made into an atmospheric movie starring Academy Award Nominee, Keira Knightley, and Alexander Skarsgård – with Ridley Scott, as the executive producer.
You knew The Aftermath would be a film before you wrote the book because it was first commissioned as a screenplay by Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s company. Once director, James Kent, (of Testament of Youth 2014 fame) read it, he was so profoundly moved by this story of compassion and forgiveness that he went to work on it right away. You were involved in the production discussions up until filming – a bonus for any author. A year later, you were offered a book deal to write the novel of the same story.
Was it difficult converting your script into a novel? What did you learn along the way?
BROOK: It was an unusual root to film. I had conceived the story idea years before as a novel. I’d even written a few chapters and stuck them in a drawer. I then found the script getting commission by Scott Free after I had pitched the story (as a last resort) in a meeting. It was great to get it commissioned, but I still wanted to write the novel. So, I did both almost at the same time. After two drafts of the screenplay, I wrote the first 50 pages of the novel and my agent managed to get it an international auction going that changed everything. I wrote the novel and when I came back to the script, I effectively handed it over to another team. My original screenplay would have been too expensive to film, I think! Too complex and too many points of view. It was in effect too novelistic. But writing it forced me to think the story through from beginning to end. It gave me a map. And I am grateful for that.
AUTHORLINK: That is fascinating. As mentioned above, the story of The Aftermath is based on your paternal grandfather who’d fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia and who went to Germany a year after the Second World War to rebuild the country of a former enemy. He became governor of Pinneberg, just outside of Hamburg and requisitioned a house in the area. However, rather than let the original owners be kicked out and put in billets, he allowed them to stay, and both families lived together for five years!
The themes of The Aftermath are forgiveness and justice between people and countries, as well as the reconstruction of a nation and a marriage. We understand your father loved the book, which must have been a relief! What did it feel like sitting in the cinema watching Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård utter the very same words you wrote, about a grandfather you admired?
“Seeing the film was like meeting your child that’s been raised by other parents.”
BROOK: Well, it was strange. Seeing the film was like meeting your child that’s been raised by other parents. You see the family likeness, but you notice differences.
AUTHORLINK: Perfectly put. Your prose is opulent yet understated and quietly spoken. How did you learn to write like that? When did you start writing stories? Do you write every day?
BROOK: I am self-taught. But reading teaches you a great deal. And I was a copywriter which forces you to be concise and precise. I write most days. If deadlines loom, it can mean writing seven days a week. But I usually rest at weekends.
AUTHORLINK: Along your journey as a writer, you’ve come into faith, and although Christianity is not overly present in your stories, the concept of faith is. Your earlier books, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones (1996) and Jesus and the Adman (1999) had a more obvious Christian slant in comparison to The Aftermath, which is more thematic. Is it generally the case that one will have more success as a writer if you stay away from religious themes (unlike classic literature)?
BROOK: Because I started writing when I found faith the two go together in my mind. But over time I have found different ways to express this imaginatively. Faith and imagination are first cousins. I think that the idea of meaning – is there any? Why are we here? Why is there something not nothing – interests me a great deal. These questions are religious questions, but they occur to all people. We may come to different conclusions but that’s to be expected.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, you’re so right. How do you react to negative criticism, if at all? What advice would you give to your younger self?
BROOK: Well, it’s true that you remember the bad crits better than the good. It depends on what the criticism is about. Sometimes it might not really about what you’ve written, but about you, or what you believe. I have encountered this subtle prejudice more than I expected to. The literary world has its Torquemadas!
But it’s all part of the job.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. You also published a non-fiction book, called More Than Eyes Can See: A Nine-Month Journey into the Aids Pandemic, in 2007. You were asked if you would write a book for the Salvation Army who does a lot of work in the HIV Aids field and you went with your wife and two children and spent a year in communities affected by HIV/Aids. What an extraordinary undertaking. Was it an enriching experience for your children? Or difficult? Have you heard the recent reports by The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) that a handful of patients have been functionally cured of HIV? How does that make you feel given your close encounter with the disease?
BROOK: This journey was a true privilege. The four of us saw how a lot of the world lives. We witnessed some very hard things. Sickness and death. But the overall experience was also full of life. Of small acts of kindness. Of loving communities. Of people doing heroic but unheralded things to help others. My children were 6 and 9 at the time and they can best answer the question. All I know is that they have seen how the world works and doesn’t work, close up. They met some amazing people with whom they are still friends.
The progress made on the medical side is phenomenal. When we were there ARV’s were not universally available. And they were quite rudimentary. There are still big issues around the economics of life putting huge pressure on relationships, of the pyscho-emotional social issues around loss and grief. And how the next generation approaches these things is key.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, you’re so right. Thank you. You have written five books with a few years in between. Please tell us your writing process in a few words.
“With scripts, it’s more important to have a plan and structure in mind.”
- How long does it take for you to research your books? The Aftermath required a lot of research. Taliesin almost none. Generally, I have mined my own life and experiences for my writing.
- Do you plan out the plots of your novels, or make up as you go along? I plan and don’t plan. With scripts, it’s more important to have a plan and structure in mind. With a novel, you have a rough idea, but you need to be open to discovering what you want to write in the moment. Unless it’s a complex thriller, but even these need the element of surprise (from a writing point of view).
- How many times do you go over your writing before you give it to your first reader? I edit as I go and then probably to one big re-draft. Then my wife gets to see it. Then I go away and try to do better!
- Who is your first reader? As above. My Mrs.
- How many times do you go through the editing process by your editor? I have only had one big editing process – on The Aftermath. But even that took one big go at the next draft. After that, it’s line edits.
- How many words a day do you aim to write? I try to write a minimum of 500 but am not religious about it.
- What would you say is your interesting writing habit? I often get up just when I’m writing something really good. It’s odd but I think I get so excited that I have to stop.
AUTHORLINK: What are you currently working on other than the screenplay for The Killing of Butterfly Joe? Can you tell us a bit about it?
BROOK: A TV Pilot for a series of my own devising. I can’t tell you more yet!
AUTHORLINK: Of course! And to finish off with some light-hearted Proust-type questions: –
- What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Being polite.
- Which three people dead or alive, would you invite to dinner and why? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The wine would be hard to beat.
- What is the quality you most like in a man? Kindness
- What is the quality you most like in a woman? Wit
AUTHORLINK: Interesting answers! Mr Brook, thank you so much for your time today! We enjoyed talking with you and wish your continued success.
BROOK: This interview was great fun. Thanks so much for the time and effort you put into asking such attentive questions.
About the Author: Rhidian Brook (born 1964) is a novelist, screenwriter, and broadcaster.
His first novel, The Testimony Of Taliesin Jones (Harper Collins) won three prizes, including the 1997 Somerset Maugham Award, and was made into a film starring Jonathan Pryce. His second novel, Jesus and The Adman (Harper Collins) was published in 1999. His third novel, The Aftermath, was published in April 2013 by Penguin UK, Knopf US and a further 18 publishers around the world. His short stories have been published by The Paris Review, Punch, The New Statesman, Time Out and others; and several were broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Short Story.
His first commission for television – Mr Harvey Lights A Candle – was broadcast in 2005 on BBC1 and starred Timothy Spall. He wrote for the BBC series Silent Witness between 2005-7, and the factual drama Atlantis for BBC1 in 2008. Africa United, his first feature film (Pathe), went on general release in the UK in October 2010. He is adapting The Aftermath as a feature for Scott Free and BBC Film.
He has written articles for papers, including The Observer, The Guardian, and The Daily Telegraph. In 2005, he presented Nailing The Cross, a documentary for BBC1. In 2006 he broadcast a series In The Blood for BBC World Service, recording his family’s journey through the AIDS pandemic. His book about that journey – More Than Eyes Can See – was published by Marion Boyars in 2007.
He has been a regular contributor to Radio 4’s “Thought For The Day” for more than twelve years.
He lives with his wife and two children in London.