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Broken by Daniel Clay : My Q&A with the author of the book behind the movie

Yesterday I posted my thoughts on Daniel Clay's best-selling novel, Broken, which you can read here if you like Published in 2008, the gripping story has been made into a film which opens July 18th here in the states. I intended to write that if the film is half as good as the book, the filmmakers could have a huge hit on their hands but the film has won the award for the Best Independent British Film from BIFA so mission accomplished! Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy and Eloise Laurence star along with Rory Kinnear who took home a BIFA Best Supporting Actor for playing the brutish Bob Oswald.

I'm pleased to welcome Daniel Clay, the author of the best-selling book, Broken! 

First of all, Congrats! I see the movie based on your book has won the Best British Independent Film award from the British Independent Film Association! What a fantastic outcome for your debut novel.

Thank you! Yes, it was great. I wasn’t lucky enough to be there on the night and the BIFA awards aren’t televised, so I sort of ‘watched’ it unfold on Twitter. The fantastic Rory Kinnear won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bob Oswald and then it won the big one. I’ve got such huge respect for everyone involved in the film and was just delighted for them that it won.

I’ve read that Broken was optioned for the screen before it was even published; I can only imagine how that must have felt! Can you share how that came about and your reactions to the news? 

It was all out of the blue and sort of crept up on me. Quite often, after a publishing deal gets agreed, there’s a lag of about ten months or so before publication to allow for edits, proofing, etc. So a few months after Broken had sold in the UK, US and Canada, I went up to London to see my agent and ended up sitting in an office just down the corridor from him with a producer from Curtis Brown’s Film & Television department saying they had a screenwriter looking at it and were already talking to BBC Films about funding... it was all done very soberly though as the film world is very uncertain so it wasn’t as if there were champagne corks being popped and any back-slapping going on – just them saying be aware we’re really interested and excited about this and we hope to be in touch. That was probably October or November of 2007. I think it was February 2008 before I heard anything else and late 2011 before filming finally began!

Did the screenwriter make many changes to the story? Was it difficult to see how they fiddled with your work? 

The screenwriter (Mark O’Rowe, who adapted the fantastic Boy A from Jonathan Trigell’s great novel of the same name – a must see and must read, if you’ve not already, I think) and the director (Rufus Norris, an award winning theatre director who’s very well known in the UK) made huge changes, but I always thought they would have to in order to make the book work as a film. When I had the meeting I referred to above I sat there thinking about some of the scenes in the novel and just couldn’t see how they would work for an audience visually on screen – though I believe they make for extremely powerful and gripping reading in the book. So I sort of expected the film to be different and was more relieved than upset when I saw the film for the first time. I’m overjoyed with what they’ve done.

Eloise Laurence (Skunk) and Tim Roth (her dad, Archie)
The book is a mix of dark humor, suspense, and family drama; was it difficult to find the right tone? 

Not really, in terms of tone, because the first draft of the novel was all written in first-person from Skunk’s viewpoint, and her voice and the way she saw the world just sort of arrived in my head: Where she was telling the story from a coma, it felt as if she was doing the voice-over in a Desperate Housewives/American Beauty style (where you feel there’s a presence floating over a set of houses), and she was just free to comment on things in a way you can’t really in third person fiction, which is the style I usually write in: Even before I really knew what the story was going to be about, I just wrote and wrote all sorts of things from her point of view because I loved writing from her perspective and thinking about the way she viewed the world around her. I think her tone and her take on the world countered the darkness of the plot, and the fact she could just flit from one family situation to another gave the narration a real sense of speed. Something wasn’t right with the whole novel being in her first person voice, though, and my agent suggested having some parts in third person and the rest remaining in first person, which I did try, but it felt too uneven. In the end I switched it to be virtually all third person with snippets of the original first person remaining and felt straight away that the manuscript was suddenly there.

What led you to write this particular story? 

I was in the doldrums as a writer before I wrote it – other than a couple of short stories and poems I was unpublished but I’d had quite a high profile agent who’d seen a manuscript of mine, loved my writing but not that novel, and had asked me to try writing a psychological thriller. At first it went really well and when he saw the first fifty pages he raved about it and said he’d told all sorts of publishers and they were all desperate to see the finished version. And, for some reason, the novel just started to go wrong from that point on. He didn’t like the finished version and suggested a re-write. I did a re-write. He didn’t like that. And so, after almost four years, we just sort of went our separate ways. I then had another go at that novel, spent a further year on it (around doing my day-job as well; other than a spell around the time Broken was published, I’ve always worked to finance my writing), and still no-one was interested. I then tried to write another psychological thriller which didn’t get going, then a crime novel that didn’t get going, and was on a bit of a downer with the publishing industry and myself in general when I picked up a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird that had been lying around the house for years. I’d never read it before and knew nothing about Harper Lee, so had no idea it was a debut novel written by a woman who’d been earning a living as a clerk for an airline company at the time she’d written it; I didn’t actually find that out until I stumbled upon a newspaper article about her the following year, and I just started to think – well, if a literary nobody (which she pretty much was at the time she started writing that novel) like Harper Lee could dare to write To Kill A Mockingbird, why am I messing around trying to write psychological thrillers and crime novels when I don’t really like reading psychological thrillers and crime novels, and don’t seem very good at writing them either? Why can’t I at least challenge myself to write something I believe in and care about rather than something I think might get published. I also started to wonder what a great writer like Harper Lee would choose to write about if she was living my life, in the street where I was living. And, finally, I started to wonder how the main family structures in To Kill A Mockingbird might interact with each other and the world around them if they were living in a modern day English suburb: In short, Broken isn’t a re-telling of To Kill A Mockingbird or an attempt to write in the same style, but the background of how that novel came to be written and the differences between that novel’s depression-era society and our own society were the things that inspired me to write it.

You’ve spoken about the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird as being your initial, I think I would say, "muse", for the book. Can you talk about some of the correlations especially between Skunk and Scout and Boo Radley and Broken Buckley? 

Definitely: When I read To Kill a Mockingbird, it made me think of my own childhood – especially in terms of unsupervised time – because my mother had died when I was young which meant there were a couple of school holidays where I pretty much had the house to myself every day because the rest of the family were at work: I could literally get up to whatever I wanted, something my friends couldn’t because they had a mother at home to keep them in line. These days, with working mothers becoming the norm more and more, I started to think how much freedom nearly all children must have compared to my own childhood even though I’d had more freedom than a child such as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, which got me thinking about the opportunities – and dangers – this must lead to, which is where a lot of the plotting in Broken comes from – the fact caring for children should be the most important thing to a parent, but, often, providing for them has to come first.
With Boo and Broken, I decided to take Scout’s narration (mostly based on imagination and hearsay) as fact – that Boo was someone who’d suffered a nervous breakdown and was now pretty much kept hidden from the world by his family. I’d had a situation in my own life where someone close to me had been sectioned, stabilized with medication, returned home, stopped taking the medication, become even worse than before, and then needed sectioning again. When I read Mockingbird I just kept thinking, well, here’s this society all these years ago struggling with a problem, and here we are, all these years later, still struggling with the same problem, and although the treatments and methods are different, neither society seems to have got it right. It was a thought that kept nagging at me, so one I wanted to explore.
A few people have complained to me that Broken is an unfair representation of how our social services system really is over here, but what happens in the novel isn’t meant to be a reflection of the care available, just an exploration of what can happen when vulnerable people fall through the cracks of that system. And, I’m very sorry to say, sometimes they do.

The young actress, who plays Skunk, Eloise Laurence was nominated for a BIFA for best newcomer. How did you feel about such a young person, in fact all the young actors, working with such disturbing material? 

If they’d gone with the full plot of the novel, I think I’d have felt very uncomfortable, but I always doubted they would be true to certain sections of the novel (I think the way they’ve maneuvered the story around those parts is brilliant). Also, I trusted the experience of the people involved with the production to take care of the youngsters who’d been cast – quite a few have talked openly about the fact they’re parents themselves, and it’s the different aspects of parenthood displayed in the novel that first attracted them to the project: As it turned out, Eloise’s mother, Clare Burt, plays Mrs. Buckley, so was actually in all of the scenes I’d have thought would have been hardest for Eloise to get through – or, at the very least, on the set – which, hopefully, would have helped.

One of the things I enjoy is hearing who authors would like to see in the lead roles if their books were turned into films. Did you have any ideas about who should play Archie and who should play Mike beforehand? What do you think of the casting of Tim Roth and Cillian Murphy. 

I genuinely had no thoughts on who I’d like to be cast. As far as I can remember, there are very few physical descriptions of the characters in the novel because I’m not a writer who likes to introduce a character by stopping the forward momentum to describe what they look like, and I then don’t like to take the risk of adding a physical description to a character a reader has (hopefully) already formed a picture of. I think Bob Oswald is the only one who’s given a firm description early on in the novel, and I can’t really think of any actors who look like that description of Bob!
My jaw did drop, though, when I saw stars such as Cillian Murphy putting their names to the script...

Watch the trailer!
The film’s director, Rufus Norris, was also a nominee. Clearly the film is a critical success over there. Were you at all concerned about a first time film director turning your book into his cinematic vision? 

No, not at all. I mean, he’s regarded as a huge success over here already because of his work as a director of great theatre, so it wasn’t really as if he was a bona-fide first time director, just someone with a wonderful track-record attacking a different medium. On top of that, possibly my favourite film ever, American Beauty, was Sam Mendes’s first movie after proving himself in theatre, so I was always excited rather than nervous to see how Rufus would do.

That's Cillian Murphy under those bandages
Did you visit the set? Can you talk about what they filmed that day? Was it a scene from the book? How did it compare? 

My wife and I had one day on the set, and it was such a brilliant experience: We were lucky enough to meet Denis Lawson (who plays Mr. Buckley), Clare Burt (Mrs. Buckley), Robert Emms (Broken), and Eloise in the morning where they shot some scenes in the hospital Broken spends some time in after he’s sectioned: Although Broken does spend time in this hospital in the book, my vision of it was very different and the actual scenes they were shooting aren’t in the book.
The place they were shooting was a disused office complex in north London and it was our first ever time on a film-set. My initial impression was how many people there were and the size of the building they’d taken over – I hope I’m not an egotistical person, but it was very strange to look around at the amount of people there and think it really had all started with me, and I’ve had a similar feeling the two times I’ve seen the credits roll at the end of the film – so many actors and producers and musicians and investors and systems involved to bring something like that the big screen, and all of it started with me on my own in my lunch-hour at work. It’s a very bizarre thing to think.
But that was nothing compared to the afternoon, when we went to the cul-de-sac where most of the action in the film (and the book) takes place. They’d rented out two houses and had permission to shoot outside a third one, but when I say rented out, I really mean completely taken over – redecorated, put up pictures of the cast in family poses, I mean, just made these characters’ worlds real: Rufus took us on a tour of both houses and it was like stepping into another world. But it was funny as well because he kept saying things like, yes, we’ve got this here because Skunk’s diabetic... er, is she in the book? And I’d go, no, and we’d move on and he’d go, yes, and we’ve got this picture here of Bob and his three daughters... er, is that how many daughters he has in the book? And I’d go no, and we’d move on... Like I’ve said, I was expecting big changes – and they didn’t disappoint!
The scenes they shot that afternoon featured Cillian Murphy (Mike), Bill Milner (Jed), Zana Marjanovic (Kasia – who’s actually called Cerys in the novel), and Eloise again. Again, none of the scenes were scenes from the novel, exactly, but that cast of characters do spend a lot of time together in the novel. It was great meeting all the actors involved but obviously a bit special to meet Cillian Murphy. We spent about ten minutes chatting to him and he just seems like a really nice down to earth person – very easy to talk to, very approachable – but he definitely has something about him that makes him stand out; not just his looks, but his voice as well, and possibly the knowledge that this person has seen things/done things/met people you’re probably never going to yourself.

For the record, Broken was an incredibly gripping, disturbing, funny and moving book. It hits a couple of terrible touchstones we are dealing with here in the states; Mental health and violence. While not gun violence, the violence that does occur in Broken is awful enough. Our system here in the states is as BROKEN as it appears to be there. Can you talk about the role of violence in art, at least so far as your book is concerned?

I always find this difficult to talk about, because what happens in Broken wasn’t really a conscious decision on my part; I was led there by the characters – I mean, to try and explain without spoiling the plot for anyone, I never sat down and thought, character X is going to do something to character Y and this in turn will lead to all sorts of trouble for several other major characters. I was led there by a scene in To Kill A Mockingbird where the children dare each other to run up and touch the side of the Radley house and the fact I felt very strongly that children nowadays wouldn’t challenge each other to run up and touch the side of a house, they’d challenge each other to go much, much further than that. And I know that sounds a terrible stain on kids of today, but I based that assumption on the fact that, when I’d been about nine, a friend’s family had gone on holiday and I and another friend had dared each other to break into the empty house and steal a toy car we both coveted. Our attempts to do this were pathetic – we stood in the road throwing small stones at the front-room window until an adult came out of another house and chased us away! – but the thought process and intentions had been there. So this led me to have Dillon, who’s already displayed a disregard for the law and other people’s property, take the opportunity to get into the Buckley house and steal their DVD player, which in turn led the novel to take the dark turn that then leads to so much more darkness and pain: So, really, much more than consciously trying to explore violence and darkness in society, I was trying to explore the differences between my childhood, the childhood depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, and some children’s childhoods today.
In terms of art in general, though – or, rather, writing in general – I think it’s important that both new and established writers continue to provoke with honest and thoughtful explorations of how our society can go wrong. For me, I’m going to continue writing about the things that I see around me that then nag away in the back of my mind. So I am kind of hoping my plots brighten up!

Thank you Daniel! As I've said, I highly recommend the book and can't wait for the film to make it to the US!
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 3/5/2013 Updated 7/9/13