Could 'method writing' be the future for novelists?

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Leonardo Dicaprio and a pen and notebookImage source, AP
Image caption,
Leonardo DiCaprio's immersive acting method could inspire a new technique for authors

Could writers benefit from the same tactics as method actors, who immerse themselves in extreme surroundings in order to prepare for a role?

Every February, as the Oscars roll around, movie fans revel in stories about actors who have gone to extreme lengths to prepare for parts.

Daniel Day-Lewis learned to track and skin animals and fight with tomahawks for The Last of the Mohicans, while, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio plunged into an icy river and sank his teeth into a hunk of raw bison while filming the Oscar-nominated film The Revenant.

Actors going to such lengths has become more common in recent years and a cynic might argue it certainly did not harm their film's publicity, but given the apparent success of their technique, could working in a similarly immersive way also benefit novelists?

The author Thomas W Hodgkinson thinks so.

"I wrote the bulk of my new novel, Memoirs of a Stalker, whilst lying flat on my back in one of the cupboards in my home. There wasn't even room for a laptop, so I had to write it on my mobile phone," he says.

"I was trying to get into the mindset of my main character, who breaks into his ex-girlfriend's house and lives there for months without her knowing. He spends a lot of time lurking in shadows, behind doors, and crouched in cupboards."

On Saturday, Hodgkinson is launching his Method Writers project, calling on other authors to try similar techniques to see whether or not it benefits their writing.

Whilst such a move rather conveniently draws attention to Hodgkinson's debut novel, could his idea be worthy of further discussion?

Sarah Churchwell, professor of American Literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, doesn't totally dismiss method writing as an idea, but says most would not think it necessary.

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James Joyce and William Faulkner are among the many authors who have drawn maps or family trees to help them create their fictional realm

"This idea is not different in kind to the way most authors write, it's just different in degree. Writing is always an immersive, imaginative experience," she says.

"As a writer, you do live inside the heads of your characters and the world you've created. Rather than locking themselves literally in a closet, most writers just mentally immerse themselves in a certain realm, whether fictional or historical."

Prof Churchwell has experience of writing in such a way. For her 2014 book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, she says she had to immerse herself in all things 1922.

"I did nothing but read about 1922 for five years - I felt I was imaginatively living in that world. You do become naturally obsessed.

"You can't shed the role at the end of the day... much the way actors often say they also can't just emerge from the role. They are imaginatively living it, and writers are the same."

But not everyone agrees method acting significantly enhances an actor's performance.

One who reportedly did not have time for such a technique was Oscar winner Laurence Olivier, who appeared in the 1976 film Marathon Man, alongside Dustin Hoffman.

To get into the spirit of his role, during which he had to look exhausted, Hoffman did not sleep in the run up to shooting certain scenes. When Lord Olivier heard about it, he asked his co-star: "My dear boy, why don't you try acting?"

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Dustin Hoffman famously failed to impress Laurence Olivier with the extreme lengths he went to for his role in Marathon Man

Hodgkinson argues it would be unfair to suggest Hoffman - who had thrown himself into the role to help him get through a divorce - was not acting, and the process evidently helped him.

"I'm not saying method writing is the only way to go, but if it works, it works," he says.

"It's restrictive to say as a writer you just have to sit down at a desk and concentrate very hard, when there's all kinds of things you can do to get in the right frame of mind.

"No writer just sits down at a desk without any preparation. What we're saying is be creative about your preparation, even at the cost of seeming a little bit ridiculous. It's a terribly English thing, this fear of ridicule. But many of the great method actors have been laughed at, and they didn't turn out too bad in the end."

Whilst perhaps not going to quite the same lengths, Prof Churchwell points out there are certainly other writers who have tried the immersive technique in the past, including some of the greats.

James Joyce used charts to help him keep track of characters and motif when writing Ulysses, while William Faulkner drew maps of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where he set all but three of his novels. He also wrote genealogies of his fictional families.

As part of Hodgkinson's attempts to get the Method Writers project off the ground, he and fellow author Alexander Fiske-Harrison are offering a series of one-day courses in March, which he says will aim to teach aspiring writers about the benefits of the technique and "become the Daniel Day-Lewis of literature".

But some disapproving readers may recall Lord Olivier's immortal words - if he were alive today, he might well advise budding authors to simply "try writing, dear boy".