Robert Ronsson and Charlie Johnson
Out of Such Darkness and Once Upon a Time in Chinatown
On one wall of a small room in my house, alongside the certificate linking the room to a latrine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I have hung the two original artworks for my novels published by Patrician Press. Both illustrations are by Charlie Johnson. They reference the classic Hollywood films that inspired the books.
The brief for the cover of the first novel, Out of Such Darkness, was probably the more challenging. There are two separate narratives, one is set in 1930s Germany and the other in USA at the turn of the 21st century. The latter focuses on a man who survived the attack on the Twin Towers. He is haunted by the Emcee from the film ‘Cabaret’ who is the personification of his guilt. Charlie’s cover references both time periods. A café scene in the style of the 1930s German artist George Grosz incorporates a ‘window’ on the future depicting New York seen from across Long Island sound on the day after 9/11.
Patrician Press published the book in 2015. Its dual-time construction was original back then and it has a timeless theme. Some reviewers highlighted how shocked and disturbed they were by the story’s unexpected explosive ending. It is a book I am proud to have written and I hope that the revival of interest in the musical version of the ‘Cabaret’ story will give it a boost.
I have always been keenly interested in films. In fact at around the time I was writing Out of Such Darkness I was part of a team that instigated and now runs a local community cinema. It occurred to me that, with one under my belt, if I could find another movie-to-book link, I could turn it into a series. ‘Chinatown’, a classic Hollywood film-noir, had long been a favourite so it was an obvious choice.
At the time I was working up two ideas: one focused on a mysterious ‘castle’ in Northern Malaysia and the second a family whose fortune came from the manufacture of the scented ‘cake’ found in urinals! By weaving the fictional ‘urinal’ family’s history with that of the real family who built the Malaysian castle I was able to produce an enigmatic narrative that became Once Upon a Time in Chinatown.
The narrator’s descriptions of events are partial and deceptive giving it the same darkly cryptic atmosphere that pervades the film. The cliché ‘nothing is what it seems’ really does apply.
Charlie’s cover for Once Upon a Time in Chinatown copies the style of the film’s poster and includes his drawing of the dilapidated mansion at the heart of the book.
Chinatown’s grand book launch in a London cinema was set for March 24th 2020. The first Covid 19 lockdown started on March 23rd. Despite this false start the novel has garnered favourable reviews, with one reviewer calling it a “deliciously equivocal tale” – exactly the effect I wanted. I will always believe that it would have taken off had it been released into a normal world.
The third book in what is now the ‘Movie Trilogy’ was inspired by ‘Groundhog Day’. The film is a comedy classic and has given the world an enduring catchphrase. My version starts where the film ends. The man has had a perfect day that ends with the woman he has been pursuing in his bed. My book sees it from the woman’s viewpoint. This flips the innocent romcom to reveal a morally dubious side.
I have decided that this will be my last tilt at the immortality afforded by being a recognised novelist. The freedom this decision affords allowed me to develop what was a straightforward narrative into a book that stretches the definition of the word ‘novel’. It also, incidentally, explores the many meanings of the novel’s title, I Got You. If you know the film, you’ll know why this is appropriate.
Going back to the subject of covers, if this final book in the trilogy is published I envisage there being no illustration. All it needs is for the title to be repeated in different colours and fonts to represent the different ways the words can be used. This interpretation also alludes to the way the book’s innovative second part challenges the reader to think about storytelling and how a listener or reader deciphers what they hear or what they read.
Robert Ronsson 2023
You can see more about Charlie Johnson and his work for Patrician Press here: