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Ahead of its release on 9 March, Patrick Kincaid talks about his debut novel The Continuity Girl.
What is The Continuity Girl about?
The Continuity Girl is a comic love story, set in 2014 and 1969. In 2014, a film studies lecturer, Gemma, gets the gig of her career: introducing a newly-discovered, full-length cut of her favourite film, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, at a film festival in Scotland. She seeks out the film’s continuity supervisor, April Korzeniowski, to interview before the screening, and through her finds out all about what happened when the film was shot in 1969.
But we also find out about what happened in 1969 – at least, during the location shoot on Loch Ness – from the perspective of Jim, a young Loch Ness investigator, who is very reluctant to share his territory with this invading film crew. Then he meets the crew’s continuity ‘girl’, April, and everything changes…
Okay, so what’s a “continuity girl”?
Today, we’d call the role “continuity supervisor”, and as often as not a man might be doing it. But back in the day, in Hollywood and here, it would have been “continuity girl” or “script girl”. In terms of the role, it’s about making sure there are no slips in continuity between scenes, and even between shots, in a film that is unlikely to made in script order. There’s a lot of fine detail involved, down to getting the eye lines right: if someone is looking off camera in a close up, are they looking where they ought to be when the shot changes to the person they’re meant to be talking to?
We sometimes forget that it isn’t so long ago since professional roles were very strictly demarcated along gender lines. Of course, it was never a girl – never a minor – who took on this role. The real continuity girl on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was Elaine Schreyek, who was 45 in 1969 and had already worked on notable films for two and a half decades. I suppose that calling an adult “girl” (or “boy” for that matter) is an effective way of putting them in their place.
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Looking back, there are a number of sources, but one big moment when they came together. I’d heard a couple of programmes on Radio 4 about the role of the continuity girl. I love the idea of approaching stories from the point of view of someone who isn’t quite in the thick of it, who isn’t the most famous participant. Then, I’d always loved The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and been obsessed – as all fans of it are – by what’s missing: the one third of it that the producers forced Billy Wilder to cut. And then, there was meeting a real monster hunter out on Loch Ness during a boat tour, who still claimed that that he’d seen Billy Wilder’s monster model sink on its test run on the water… I was on my honeymoon at the time, and the idea of a love story sprang to mind pretty much instantly.
What’s so special about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes?
There’s a bit of a romance about the film that’s inevitable given the circumstances of its production and initial failure. It’s a late work by a Hollywood great, Billy Wilder, co-written by IAL Diamond, with whom he’d made Some Like it Hot and The Apartment – wildly successful movies. Sherlock Holmes was a labour of love, but so much went wrong. The star, Robert Stephens, was troubled and took an overdose which delayed production; the model monster sank; and then, the studio ordered the three-hour epic cut to two. The public didn’t take to it at first, and critics didn’t get it, so the movie also sank.
But then it rose again. TV screenings gained it a cult following. Members of the cult included the satirical novelist Jonathan Coe, who wrote a brilliant essay about his obsession with the film and its missing segments. Another couple of members, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, funnelled their obsession into producing Sherlock for the BBC… Considering it still isn’t widely known, it’s a film that’s had quite a legacy.
And by the way, it’s wonderful. Romantic and funny, and achingly sad. Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are great as Holmes and Watson, and it has what for me is Christopher Lee’s best performance, as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. The photography – by Christopher Challis – of the Highlands scenes is breath-taking. And Miklós Rózsa’s score is one the most beautiful pieces of film music ever composed.
How much of your story is true and how much is fictional?
Most of the details of the film shoot are based on fact, though I’ve moved one or two things around for convenience. I got the gist of what was going on with Loch Ness monster hunting at the time from some contemporary books and articles, then interviewed Adrian Shine of the Loch Ness and Loch Morar Project, who put me right on a few things (including my science). But my Loch Ness monster investigators are entirely fictional. Alas, the full cut of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has yet to be discovered.
Tell us a bit more about the 2014 timeline. What inspired that dual narrative?
I was partly worried that not many people knew The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, so I wanted a way of legitimately explaining it to people. So, I came up with a character who is a film studies lecturer. I imagined the 2014 storyline acting like a commentary track on a DVD, giving context to the 1969 story. But then Gemma took on a life of her own, and her dilemma seemed to contrast nicely with Jim’s. I’m very pleased that there’s this contemporary element, because we live in interesting times. And it means I can let my 1969 characters be true to their selves, without being tempted to apologise for them.
There’s a lot about identity and place in the novel. Tell us a bit about your own background.
I’m what our PM might call “a citizen of the world”! Actually, I’m a product of the Cold War, and of the “special relationship”… Dad met Mum when he was stationed with the USAF in East Anglia in the ’60s, and I was born in Texas a few years later. Eventually, Dad sought a posting back to England and we’ve been here ever since. April in the novel has a similar background – though she’s a product of WWII. Jim is displaced too – he’s an Englishman who has made his home in Scotland and never feels anything other than foreign. Gemma is a Londoner, but one who is constantly made aware of her heritage: her dad is a Scot (and a nationalist to boot), and her mum is a first-generation African-Caribbean.
Who are some of your influences as a writer?
I think The Continuity Girl is influenced by my reading of social comedies as a teenager – that line that runs from Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, to Amis’s son, Martin. It’s nothing like those novels, though. Jonathan Coe is one of my current favourites, but he writes a more overtly political kind of social novel. I’d love to think that mine might sit comfortably on a shelf alongside David Nicholls’ One Day and Us.
Why publish with Unbound?
Unbound is amazing. Like any quality publisher, they’re looking for the really good books – but their model means they can greenlight more of the things they love. Crowdfunding is a challenge, but you’re given lots of support, and it’s a great lesson in how to let people know about your book. Once through it, you enter the normal process of mainstream publishing knowing that there are already 200 people waiting for the book to appear. It’s all very new, and makes you feel like a pioneer. It’s an adventure.
The Continuity Girl will be published by Unbound Digital on Friday 9 March, and is available to pre-order now from unbound.com/books/the-continuity-girl and www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B079N6S2SF.
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