Research Notes · 05/01/2015

Burning Down George Orwell's House

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Andrew Ervin writes about Burning Down George Orwell’s House from Soho Press.

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Finding It At the Movies

When I was writing the first draft of Burning Down George Orwell’s House, which I did by hand and on graph paper, I devoted an obsessive amount of attention to the sinewy transitions between scenes. That was something I had never done before. The idea of carefully distinguishing each scene and setting from the previous forced me to think more about the visual experience of the story. In my original conception, Ray Welter’s departure from Chicago for Scotland’s Isle of Jura was going to work at the same pace as the original King Kong (1933), with the preparations and journey providing a slow buildup to the arrival on the remote island. It was only in later drafts that I realized that my story had to begin in Scotland. The novel opens on the ferry port on Islay, from where Welter can see the Isle of Jura through the mist. That was as close as I personally ever got to Jura, which was where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. After that slow realization, I found myself thinking a great deal about the techniques of filmmaking.

In terms of storytelling, the director and former Monty Python illustrator Terry Gilliam remains one of my primary artistic idols. With all love and respect to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Gilliam’s most recent film The Zero Theorem (2013) was by far the best thing I’ve seen this decade. I taught an honors class on his work at Temple University while writing this novel, so his influence is certainly here somewhere. Star Wars (1977) also remains important to me as well, maybe too important, and my most vivid memory from its original theatrical release involves those great contrasts as it moves the scene from one place (such as the filthy desert) to another (the pristine and sparkling interior of a spaceship) to another (a noisy cantina). Those awkward transitional swipes still make me very happy.

There are two other films that I love and which might very well share some thematic resonances with Burning Down George Orwell’s House. I’m not trying to be elusive here—I’m simply too close to the book to be able to (or to want to) analyze it in any meaningful way. That said, I’m a big fan of everything Powell and Pressburger did and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) is one of my all-time favorites. Whatever currency the word “classic” retains is applicable to that movie. Then there’s also The Wicker Man (1973), a genuinely creepy, pagan Christopher Lee vehicle that involves bizarre rituals and human sacrifice. What’s not to love? Both are set on remote Scottish islands and feature some degree of conflict between the old traditions and the modernizing forces from the mainland. Sounds familiar.

To some extent, I suppose I’ve always thought of Burning Down George Orwell’s House in black and white, like something from the glory days of Ealing or Pinewood Studios, from which I can smell the rain and burning peat and sea emanating from my HDTV. After finishing the book, at the suggestions of some friends, I’ve watched Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) and Alexander Mackendrick’s Whisky Galore! (1949). Both feel so familiar, like they traffic in many of the same lost-on-the-moors tropes I enjoyed stomping on. If we’re permitted to create our own precursors, as Borges wrote of Kafka, I’d be gratified to think of Whisky Galore! as one of many for Burning Down George Orwell’s House.

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Andrew Ervin grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Budapest, Illinois, and Louisiana. He has a degree in philosophy and religion from Goucher College and completed his MFA in fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His criticism regularly appears in The New York Times Book Review, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife, flutist Elivi Varga. He is the author of Extraordinary Renditions. Burning Down George Orwell’s House is his first novel.