I lived in a train depot for over fifteen years at the edge of woods large enough to get lost in. Twenty metres away, at the end of a gravel surface, trains passed eight times a day to and from the city, four hours away. The trains were loud enough to rattle some things and shake the rest. Sometimes I’d wake at four in the morning, convinced the thing had come off the tracks and was heading for the bedroom. It was a shack by any definition of the word, but one of the rooms was large: trees as far as the eye could see. And the benefit of such a place is that the living space is enhanced by that extra ‘room’: the door you can open and be outside. The cabin was formerly a train sub-station, where a century before people bought tickets and waited for the sound of the engine.
I kept my own company but in a place welcome to others. I took in a pit-bull terrier, Hobart who, afterwards I realized, was the image of the dog in the paperback of Coetzee’s Disgrace. I lived a minute’s walk from where a neighbor kept guinea fowl, roosters and hens, and two other adopted dogs, a Rottweiler-Dane mix and a wolf mix. Add Max the black cat, who was befriended by the Rottweiler. At midnight, they went for walks, Max with her white paws moving beneath the protection of her massive, also largely black companion. Trees ringed the enclosure, and over my roof with an elaborate, useless antenna, towered a 35-metre Norwegian spruce, and a history of storms that couldn’t knock it down. I felt that I had a tenuous and secondary function there as a human. I was an observer, not participant. I brought my human rhythms, and in the years I spent there, I learned other rhythms—intelligences that worked their way into my writing.
Previously I had written three books of poetry. About eight poems out of those three books were decent. Too many were polished vanities, revised hundreds of times until pointed and somehow pointless despite the scores of periodicals that gave them a home. Being published is just that. It doesn’t have a great deal to do with writing. It’s what happens to it afterwards.
Fiction was a relief from the inwardness of poetry, but I inherited an economy in my work from much reading in Poetics and my studies in a tradition that prizes economy and a completeness-in-itself of prose.
This was followed by a fellowship to the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and workshops with Grace Paley and Stephen Dixon. You might say that Schopenhauer’s Telescope, my first novel (2003), was my first book of poetry.
The novel was written in a room in the cabin without heat in a very cold winter. As my two very cold protagonists fought for their lives, the vapour above my typing made me a witness to the scene I described. I was in that cold, and the wall in front of me (a blank wall is richest), conjured up the scenes that announced themselves as they came.
The farm had its own heartbeat: the rhythms of the animals that called it home reverberated in the background, a hum of counterpoint that took years to appreciate.
Even the slowest creatures had their stories: I’d find snapping turtles on their way to the pond, armored for battle, an ancient species with the ability to sever my hand if I was foolish enough to reach too close. To this was added various birds of prey in the form of silent shadows gliding across the ground. The nearness of life and death around the cabin became the default setting. Primitive, uncompromising, unrelenting.
Guinea fowl go back to the age of dinosaurs. They sleep in the trees at night, which is why I suspect they’ve lasted so long, and they frequented the ferns, which reach further back in time. During the day they wandered, bursting into cackles and chirping. After a while, I didn’t hear them. They joined the train as background. The bantam roosters and the running drama of hen-courting sent another level of sound across the stage. Imagine the cacophony, patterns and variations far from random, only arranged differently from the average human ‘unit of meaning’ in a sentence or how we talk to one another.
And now imagine that my brain accepted those distracting rhythms and created a framework for them. The context was survival, not art. How much art is there in the art of survival? More than I could have imagined. I took this intrusion of subversive rhythms, proficient in the art of survival, and translated them into prose, the immediacy of language.
First published in 2006, and later in a dozen languages, the first true product of those woods was the novel Julius Winsome.
A passage from A Writer’s Notebook by Somerset Maugham.
One takes pains to be simple, clear and succinct. One aims at rhythms and balance …[but] Tolstoi, Dickens, Balzac and Dostoievsky wrote their respective languages very indifferently. It proves that if you can tell stories, devise incidents, and if you have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.
In the end, I think that Maugham is talking about voice. The great destroyer of all rules in fiction. It’s amazing to me how many definitions exist for voice in the pages of how-to books. Most agree that a ‘writer’s voice’ is unique but needs to be developed.
If I may put the issue in fundamental terms, there are two voices. We speak by virtue of having a physical voice—a synecdoche for the larynx and structures of the lungs, jaw and tongue. Voice in fiction is a hallmark that identifies a particular writer’s mind at work. We view our speaking voice as a way to express thoughts, and our writing voice as a composer of thoughts. The potential for confusion is legion.
I see voice in fiction not as one defining feature but as a combination of factors: the words I choose; how I compose sentences in terms of cadence and ordering information; how I proceed from one event to another in a manner that spotlights story rather than writing; whether I employ description as functional or ornament; how the setting is employed as a character; and the manner in which I try to make my characters urgent.
The above could be re-classed in any number of terms, such as diction, style and verisimilitude—it all seems so clinical and so circular when we set about defining terms to define the features we find in fiction.
Instead, we might accept here that voice is a combination of elements, and that the combination brought to bear on writing is what’s unique to a writer.
The art of survival has left its mark on my writing.
Plot: I see upheaval. I see reaction on the part of the character and identification on the part of the reader.
We don’t begin a Shakespeare play, we stumble across it, we hear people speaking. We possess next to no information about any of these characters. No one is prepared; it’s never the right time to do anything. But these people already are what they are going to do. They were this way before we met them. In time we’ll see them wear through masks and abandon distortions of themselves until they come to terms with what they are. In the way we first met them, they are strangers to themselves.
That sense of witness and hurry is at odds with the dominant iambic pentameter of blank verse. A fault line of tension develops as the rhetorical pace—the urgency of the characters to deal with their situation—grinds against the metrical pace. This same principle works in Julius Winsome: the process of an explosion unwinding in restrained prose.
Take a scene from the novel, where the protagonist acts decisively, but I buried it in plain view: a short sentence in the middle of a long paragraph. Readers reported going back over the paragraph to confirm what had just happened, which magnified the event all the more. Here is an excerpt from that paragraph.
He had probably decided to spend the morning here, waiting for the silence that brings deer in, a buck wandering at the edge of the field or bigger game down from the mountain. I brought the rifle up to my shoulder and fired those eighty yards, one bullet that slapped into the folds of his neck. He grabbed for it as if for an insect….
Fulcrum: the fulcrum upends our notions about what will happen. It is that point in the novel where a momentous shift occurs, exposing a character’s motivations and fears and challenging our perceptions. Julius’ mental state allows for no transitions. The prose in the novel reflects that mental state, and the reader has no resources and no process to follow, but Julius in his world.
If I don’t sense a fulcrum in a novel—then I don’t have a novel.
Parataxis: I did away with transitions, because I didn’t see any when I stepped outside every day. Transitions smooth the passage from one circumstance to another by mixing elements of both. But they can overshadow the effect of the previous and dilute the presence of the next. What I leave out of fiction is often as important as what I put in. In fact, what I omit is part of the writing.
I trust readers to match instantaneously the movement of scenes across space and time. Just go there. Let’s not hold hands.
Given current reading habits and the march backwards to hieroglyphics in our digital communications, I’m convinced that soon we’ll have a novel style I’ll call click-lit, characterized by random references that haunt the reader to the novel’s end. A kind of weekend syndrome, the sense that everyone is having a better time somewhere else.
But I’m speaking here of the classic version of parataxis. A rich, undeveloped vein is left to run between episodes. The reader writes into the novel where I have written nothing.
Logic: I stopped looking for reasons to justify an event, if the event was important enough to include in the first place. One day a guinea hen died and the others kicked dirt over the body and chirped in a circle for ten minutes, and moved away. If you live with creatures for fifteen years, you’ll see what others don’t. Explanation is a fatal infection if caught by fiction. I gave complete agency to anything that entered the pages and earned a lasting place in the story. I told myself to present the scene as I witnessed it—and to move on. I cannot force fiction to be true or real as I write. It’s immediate, it’s here and it’s gone. The artifice of fiction is what stays and delays.
Tone: The undiscovered narrative of a novel. What bothers the writer.
Every night, especially during winter, the trees seethed with wind. Without being conscious of it, I incorporated that sound into the narrative style with which Julius recounts his five days of killing. This created in my mind the sense of the story being whispered into the ear. That seemed the best way for this mysterious man to relate his story. The tone and character bound together.
Before I left my cabin, I buried Hobart, my companion for almost my entire time there, and the star of the novel, in the place he belonged. I made a hole and covered him by scraping dirt with both hands backward into the grave, in the way a terrier does. He’s facing the opening to the trail into the woods he loved so much.
And that is perhaps the greatest lesson I take with me. I had written my goodbye a decade before he died. When a subject comes of its own accord—and it’s powerful and immediate—perhaps that other project can wait.
The time I spent writing the novel—six weeks—was followed by two months in revision. The dream of a particular story can and does go away. Tone and treatment are fragile and transient. You can lose those.
Notes made for later may not be enough to bring it all back. And such novels take an age to write, in my experience.
My first extended novel is indeed by far the longest I’ve written, at about 130,000 words. The story begins in Java in 1825 and ends in a small railway station in England in May of 1940. Along the way we visit Paris, Blackpool, Flanders, Berlin, and Margate. This is a journey far from the compressed time and place of my first novel, which occupies a single day; my second, which takes no heed of time; and the third novel’s five days, with a brief central flashback.
The idea was so compelling to me that I faced telling the story in, for me, ungovernable narrative territory. I had a few advantages: I could describe the plot in one sentence; the narrative arc in a short paragraph; the bulk of the novel takes place from 1905-1940; the important characters jump the boundaries of multiple chapters.
Three immediate possibilities presented themselves as arrangement strategies for the material:
--Create discreet stories or novellas and place them in a sequence of ‘chapters’ held together with just enough narrative glue to justify ‘novel’. Similar locations, conversations, etc.
--Enter click-lit—simply juxtapose the unconnected. The reader establishes cohesion and meaning or a story emerges from the juxtaposition alone. The reader establishes cohesion and meaning where I have not. Or the reader discovers what I do know but am unable to enunciate. Failing that, I roll a chapter into place and know that opinions as to why will follow.
--Use motifs and planned repetition as a unifying architecture (Hugh Kenner refers to it as ‘subject rhyme’ in connection with Pound’s Cantos).
All three seemed to represent the triumph of artifice over story-telling.
In 2005 in Aspen I answered a question from a person in the audience—he turned out to be a respected science-fiction writer grappling with a range of subject matter that defied structure. I suggested that, as the creator of the world of that novel, he could establish a law of physics that allowed the material to exist as he wished it to.
In short, I was suggesting that the material comes first. Once assembled, it creates its own containment system. Let me suggest a formula: Content creates gravity; gravity structures the content.
In terms of the novel’s organization, any contest between the reader’s perception and your intent as the novelist will produce a clear winner: perception. As it should.
Scientists have ample evidence that show the brain will ‘compose’ one colour or another, depending on surrounding colours. Red can appear as gray—and this is not a trick ‘gray.’ The brain actually presents gray, and no amount of reason will have you see red, which will appear as such once the other shapes or colours are removed. What’s on the page is secondary to the brain’s assimilation of content and how it makes sense of it. And what the brain decides is what you see.
In the same way, the sense of passing time is unique to a situation. A simple example: twenty minutes of standing in a queue and twenty listening to a Bach fugue are two different twenty minutes. Time flexes with context. If I accept that time is an experience, and like colour, that it alters with context, I am in possession of useful knowledge as the writer of a long novel. A hundred pages to describe the events of a day. A page to cover five years.
Characters place each other in context and are thus defined by each other in a streaming fashion. On Page 90, the reader accepts the reality of an entirely different person from the one on Page 30, even if the character has not changed. But other characters have, and that’s all it takes. Reason plays no part. We are captive to context.
We can parlay this thinking about context into the question of what a novel is, as opposed to a novella or short story.
How many short stories exist that easily might have been novellas or indeed novels? I think of Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog. This short story begins at the embankment in the seaside setting of Yalta and ends at a Moscow opera house. The embankment is a stage of sorts; it represents a neutral meeting place where secrets are new. At the opera, status is given a seat number, and popular secrets pour from the stage in practiced song. That’s a great reversal and a good place to stop. Chekhov rang the bell.
But what if he had continued? Gurov, an adept hand at the one-week provincial romance, is now out of his league—or is he? And is Anna everything she appeared to be? If Chekhov had written a novella, and we never knew of a shorter version, how many readers today would point out that the story should stop at the opera?
I view J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country as a novel, at about 32,000 very compact words. The author could have gently padded the writing to 50,000 and ended up creating a sense of unfinished business. The story remains etched in the mind long after the reading, and is the longer for it. Can certain material end at one of several plot points and still retain its essential nature, resonating in a time-delayed secretion?
Years later, my response to the audience member’s question applied itself to my own case, writing a long novel.
I made each chapter as rich and sonorous in its own right as possible, and it formed its own complete story. I discovered that a memorable character will survive re-positioning. I’m always re-thinking the originating scene, placing it elsewhere and watching how other scenes reposition themselves with Machiavellian enterprise.
The same principle governs my sense for chapter length. Notions of beginnings and endings are really moments of joining and parting.
I swept up the dead weight of research detail. I took imagery from later chapters and brought them forward in flashes. The slow turn of a German Taube in 1914 in a chapter on the pumpkin seeds of Java almost a century before served to put one thread through two chapters.
I varied the syntax in chapters when new narrators recounted their stories, but the tone remained uniform throughout.
In the end, I trusted the narrative, or as Randall Jarrell puts it, ‘pure narrative.’ The less I thought about style, the more polished the work became, and the richer, the more tonally consistent across chapters. Despite the popular term, I don’t see how it’s possible to separate ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ into discreet camps. They blend, often in the same sentence. Like flashbacks, telling can be a fragment or a long account in summary. And showing can sound programmatic very quickly.
I suspect Maugham is right about a certain indifference helping to bring about excellence. Sometimes piling everything carelessly onto the page does work, because the storytelling gene still filters and selects in the background. When composing, as opposed to revising, perhaps putting the conscious filter away does result in more and better writing.
Another aspect to this issue. As you read this sentence, are you ‘reading’ the words mentally—so that you ‘hear’ them simultaneously? Most people are. Try eliminating that mental sound so that the eye and the brain communicate directly, in complete silence. It’s difficult.
That’s the power of the conscious filter.
I’d like to mention another aspect to the experience of composing a long novel: the effect on the writer. Characters inhabited my thinking for longer than would normally be the case. Writing isn’t a desk job. I turn around and there they are, the entities I’d made, because they don’t have anyone else to talk to. I wrote one fellow out of the novel—yes, I still remember Sebastian—just to be rid of him.
As the work coalesced, characters I believed indispensable disappeared and took entire sequences with them, sequences I hated to lose. But they had to go. Passages that shine as writing can damage the novel, and the longer they stay on the page during an extended process of composition, the more indispensible they appear. The reason for deleting passages—or whole sections—has little to do with quality and everything do with relevance and resonance. And the fact remains that a ‘jewel’ of a passage will resist to the end. When it is gone, I often see the story emerge that this ‘beautiful’ writing buried.
A novel hires and fires. Players audition, seem promising, fade. The minor steps forward and is major. Cinderellas appear and hunchbacks cower in the shadows. Much drama unfolds in the netherworld of creation.