Eight Minutes Idle: Matt Thorne Q & A

As most people who follow this blog will know I’m a big fan of the novel Eight Minutes Idle, a book centred around Quick Kall, a Bristol Call Centre sometime in the late 90s. After a somewhat difficult journey which is a fascinating story in itself, a film version is set to hit UK cinemas this Valentines Day (see trailer here). Ahead of this I got the chance to pose a few questions to Eight Minutes Idle Author himself,  Matt Thorne, about the book the film and of course the call centre:

For me, what I love about Eight Minutes Idle is the rich description of how a call centre operates with all its politics and contradictions. Given that the call centre is now an established and central feature of our lives as workers, or more often callers does it surprise you that the call centre is conspicuous by its absence in literature and film and does this make it even more important to have an authentic representation of what it is like to work in a call centre such as in Eight Minutes Idle?

Absolutely.  I’ve recently been going through the novel again for the ebook edition and I noticed in it that a couple of times Dan makes reference to a call-centre providing such rich material that he’s sure it’s only a matter of time before it appears in films and on TV.  I think this was me covering myself in case other call centre narratives showed up before the book was published, but although it’s appeared occasionally in films and novels, it never seems to be described in much depth.  It’s generally presented as a job a character has while doing something else—as if it’s something that doesn’t require all of your attention.  But when I was working in a call-centre it took all of my attention and started to shape the way I was looking at the world, which was what I wanted to get across in the book (and now in the film).

One of the main issues call centre workers tend to express dissatisfaction with is their management. Managers, who listen-in to calls, enforce targets and who have the power to fire tend to be regarded as straightforward villains, which is indeed how they have been portrayed in fiction elsewhere. Alice, the Team-leader in Eight Minutes Idle, however, seems to be a more complex character who exhibits vulnerabilities and is also subject to pressures. Could you tell us some more about the character and how this relates to call centre managers in general – is she as much caught-up in the call-centre system as everyone else?

Alice in the book and Alice in the film are slightly different characters, who have quite different journeys—but both are complicated people who are not straightforward villains, as you say.  Alice in the novel has started working in a call-centre when she’s left school at sixteen and has initially been quite excited about the job but has now reached the point where she’s started to feel frustrated in her position.  She’s had a relationship with her superior that hasn’t quite worked out and enters into a relationship with Dan partly as a way of winning back the approval of her team but mainly because she wants a friend.  She sees all the fun the gang are having and doesn’t understand why being their team-leader should exclude her from this, especially as she used to be a rebel herself.  But then she can’t help herself from stirring up trouble with the team.  In the film, Alice is still vulnerable but she’s a little bit more proactive.  Her relationship with Bryan is breaking down, the call-centre’s is in trouble and she is more immediately attracted to Dan, and jealous of his friendship with Teri.  I think Montserrat Lombard has done a really brilliant job of bringing Alice to life and you see her thought- processes more clearly in the film than perhaps you do in the novel.  Because the novel is in the first person, Alice is generally seen though Dan’s eyes, and sometimes his understanding of her is slightly at odds with her true character.

Overall the main character, Dan, seems to be content with life in the call centre, though achieves this through a sense of detachment. Is this a reflection of your own feelings from your time working in a call centre and how, for instance, would you feel about working in a call centre such as Quick Kall now?

Working in a call-centre was one of my first jobs after leaving university and I genuinely really enjoyed it.  I started out doing the day shift and I really liked being surrounded by other people mainly the same age as me and it was my first experience of office camaraderie.  Then after a while I started doing the night shift and that was a much more peculiar experience.  I took the night shift because it was a 24 hour line and hardly any calls came through so I could use the time to write, but call centres at night are strange places.  Which led to the idea of sleeping in them, which inspired the novel.  Some of Dan’s observations, especially seeing his father coming back from an office job as a kid and trying to imagine what it was like, are definitely how I felt.  (Mind you, this was partly because whenever I called him he seemed to be taking advantage of the full-size snooker table in the rec room.)  Writing novels requires so much sitting alone in a room that office banter and fun feels really desirable.  That said, I now also teach Creative Writing at a university so have a newfound sense of how boring meetings can be and the occasional downsides of work.  I think what I was trying to get at in the novel (and the film) is how much of life is taken up with work but how few people try to replicate this (I guess because most writers don’t have that much experience of day-to-day office life) in books or film.  I think I would miss writing if I worked in a call-centre full time again but equally I do miss that sense of having a gang which you don’t really get at universities in the same way.  Everyone is so isolated in that sort of environment because they’re all working on their own research (or novels, in the Creative Writing department) and what I liked about working in a call-centre is that you’ve all doing more or less the same thing, and helping each other out and it’s up to you how seriously you take it (or your manager).

 One of my favourite scenes in the novel is where Dan is in the elevator and joins in the conversation about the abolition of the call centre. Much has been made of how technology, particularly the use of the internet, will either erase, or alter the call-centre’s core raison d’etre. However, very little seems to have actually changed. In fact my own experience of working in a similar call centre some ten years after Eight Minutes Idle was first published is virtually identical. Has Dan been proved right – have call centres been kept around as a public service simply to listen to old people complain?

Well this has been very much on my mind, first with adapting Eight Minutes Idle into a film (I co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Blincoe) and then preparing the first e-book edition.  I hadn’t looked at the book in the meantime and had completely forgotten the conversation in the lift and it came as a surprise to me to read it again.  When we started working on the film the first thing we had to decide was whether to do it as a period piece and set it in the late ‘90s as the novel was, or to update it to the present day.  And before we made the decision to update it we looked around and decided that not much had changed with call-centres.  There was one subplot in the film that got edited out about how some companies believe that employing a call-centre is an admission of weakness (I found interviews with people talking about this online), but there is another element in the film that does relate directly to this question that I don’t want to give away as it’s a surprise and not in the book, but essentially I think Dan has a point.  There are some differences now, with people being more proactive about complaining when things do wrong—some people will go on Twitter for example and try to contact service providers directly, and the fact that this is happening in a public forum sometimes makes companies more likely to respond—and companies often trying to hide the fact that they even have (or make use of) a call-centre.  But essentially I think that even the most complicated computer systems in the world can’t answer the range of questions that people need answering.

 Niels Kjellerup coined the phrase “toxic call centres” to describe call centres with a high focus on call volumes and average handling times which also exhibit a high level of staff-turnover. Can Quick Kall be called a “Toxic Call Centre”, or is this unfair?

I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of the film because I think Quick Kall in the film is very much a “Toxic Call Centre” even down to the way it looks—it’s not a normal-looking office environment but something much more unusual.  But in the book I think the call-centre is slightly different.  Alice says to Dan early on that there are teams in the call-centre who work well, and teams in the call-centre who’ve gone rogue, as it were, and Dan’s team is a bad one.  One of the things that’s different between the novel and the film is that the management of Quick Call in the film very much falls on the shoulders of Bryan, Alice’s ex-lover, whereas in the novel it’s a more mysterious environment.  Quick Kall in the novel has several different floors, and Dan’s uncertain about what else is going on in the building and the Bryan of the novel has no real idea what’s going on either.

 If you could change one thing about the call centre, what would you change?

The one thing I’ve never understood about call centres (at least in my experience of working at one and occasionally from calling them) is that why they don’t have more dedicated call-centres and furnish the people answering the phone with all the information they need to answer the callers’ needs.  My experience of working in a call-centre was that I had to flip from one screen to another with no idea what I was talking about (for example, running through the specs of a car when I can’t even drive) and if the person calling asked me anything that wasn’t on the screen then I had no idea how to answer.  Also, I think people should be paid more, given better job security and respected for what they’re doing.  And…sorry, this is much more than one thing, employ more people and have more lines to reduce waiting time.  Basically, I think that the importance of call-centres needs to be acknowledged and management should look at improving caller and employees’ experiences rather than hitting arbitrary targets or providing the cheapest possible service.

 

Eight Minutes Idle is released in UK Cinemas on the 14th February

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Eight Minutes Idle – The Film

I’m very excited, as I’ve just heard that the film version of the excellent Eight Minutes Idle is now due for release on Valentines Day next year.

In case you haven’t come across it the novel is the story of Dan, a Bristolian call centre worker. The Author, Matt Thorne himself worked in a call-centre and the novel is consequently full of (and I can most definitely vouch for this) highly accurate descriptions of life in the call centre.

The film has had a somewhat troubled history, with the initial distributor going bust, but thanks to a kickstarter appeal – which at the time of writing has 28 hours left to run  – it looks as if things may now be on course to finally bring the film to the cinemas.

To whet your appetites a teaser is also available here

 

 

Computer says no

Call-centres are dehumanizing places, so dehumanizing that it is easy to conclude that at some point there won’t be a role for humans at all. In the novel Eight Minutes Idle (currently being turned into a film) the protagonist who is unfortunate enough to work in a call-centre contemplates just that;

The human element of this sort of service is so unnecessary, and it can’t be long before all telephone transactions are conducted by an electronic voice. The only reason we’re here is for people who still need that illusion of human agency, unaware that all we’re really doing is reading from a computer screen. Sure, we serve as a good front for filtering out the flack, yet it can’t be that hard to programme a machine to make pathetic protests and claim it’s sorry but it can’t do anything to help the caller.

The author of Eight Minutes Idle, Matt Thorne, actually worked in a call-centre himself which gives an air of authenticity to his characters musings – I also like to think that he came up with his theories as a way of retaining his sanity in a mind numbing environment as I know I do. But I do doubt the technology is within easy reach. I only need to think of the inadequacy of those train station announcements – the ones with the tinny automated voice which say; The 8;15 to Manchester is now 20 minutes late we apologise for the delay and leave me wondering how an automated voice can possibly be sorry? Has the train company wasted all its money developing  a machine with a voice like a rusty spoon being dragged across a blackboard which spends its time feeling the collective pain of stranded passengers in the depth of it’s circuit-boards? If so is this why there is no money for enough trains?

I have however, come to the conclusion that any idea of human agency in a call-centre is illusory. My role is simply to serve the system which I maintain a constant connection to through my hand on my workstation’s mouse with my headset completing the circuit connecting the system to the customer through me the human conduit. I relay what the system says translating its esoteric language of jargon, or else input  requests on behalf of the customer again translating them into the systems preferred dialect of codes.

I can compensate for some of the systems idiosyncracies by knowing just which buttons to push and click, or where I can sometimes pull the wool over its eyes, but ultimately the parameters of my every action are determined by the system. Philosophically speaking if the system doesn’t have a word for something then whatever it is simply cannot exist.

Not many of my customers understand this dynamic. I remember one time telling a man that something couldn’t be done because of the way the system worked only to be told “yes, but people control systems.” I resisted the urge to reply with the line from Little Britain… “computer says no“, but that would really have been the truth as for many companies the system controls the entire business from orders through to production and despatch with an iron grip. Take on the system at your peril.

I have no power over the system, in fact I am part of the system, like a cyborg, a fusion between man and machine, for the duration of the time I’m plugged in the systems emotional circuitry. Nothing more.