The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I’m Pregnant!

by Andrew Tibbetts

Whenever I ask myself, “What kind of novel do I want to write?” almost right away I get drawn to a better question, “What kind of novel do I want to read?” The best novel reading experiences I’ve had in the past few years have shared a similar characteristic: the feeling of “Wow! I needed that!”

For example, I needed to read J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace.” I’d forgotten that ideas were important in fiction but only to the extent that they are dramatically important to the characters. Fiction isn’t essays. (Nowadays even essays aren’t essays!) Having a character think about male sexual violence isn’t taking it far enough. Having a character’s daughter raped—now you have a novel! There’s ‘knowing’ this and then there’s the palpable experience of the novel where that knowledge comes to life. “Disgrace” doesn’t so much ‘take issues’ that are important (sexuality, property, ageing, family, self-respect, race, violence) and spin a tale from them, rather it attempts to face the things that happen which others take issue with. I call this tenant: events not issues.

Also, with this novel, I remembered that I do not have to agree with what characters do to find them interesting and even likeable. Again, I ‘knew’ this, but after reading “Disgrace” I felt it deeply. Both the father and the daughter are people I wanted to jump into the book and shake at various points. I cal this tenant: fascinating people frustrate.

I put down “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell and felt “I needed that!” If the short story is the medium par excellence to reveal character (Robert Stone’s “Miserere”, Alice Munro’s “Menesetung”, Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”) then the novel is the place to reveal the interception of character and society. You need a bit more room to describe “a person like that at a time and place like that!” What is impacting on the characters? And what impact do the characters have on the world around them? Think of Heathcliff and Catherine on those desolate moors and of Leopold Bloom on his way through Dublin of 1904 and of Nick Guest in Thatcher’s England. Novels are planted in the world. Even in novels where the setting seems to be an aspect of the character’s own psyche—Kafka, Nathaniel West—we want to know the sensual details of that psychological place and how the character grapples with it. It may be psyche, but it is psyche felt as place. One possible interpretation of “Cloud Atlas” is that it is a novel of reincarnation. Perhaps it outlines the journey of a soul through the rise and fall of different civilizations. Or maybe not. But we get a palpable sense of the character(s)’ timeless spirit interacting with the specific challenges of the time and place in which it finds itself incarnate. The whole tone of the writing changes to reflect the era but also to reflect the dynamic between character and era. I call this tenant: character in context.

Also, with this novel, I remembered that I loved brilliant writing, that I didn’t need prose to be invisible, that I enjoyed a writer’s bravura performance just as I could enjoy a virtuoso’s brilliance in playing a concerto. Style is substance. Charlie Parker’s ‘style’ is his essence. So is Nabokov’s. If this weren’t true, Shakespeare would be a pretty terrible playwright. I ‘knew’ this but the thrill of reading “Cloud Atlas” with its stunning stylistic gymnastics and its dazzling chandelieric construction helped me to know it in my body. I call this tenant: dazzle.

I want to write a novel that flows from these tenants, a dazzling novel of fascinating people frustrating and frustrated with each other and with the time and place they act in and upon. You’d think I’d have ‘known’ that already. However, after spending a little time recalling these two very different novels, I now know it in my body. I have the feeling of my novel. Like a seed planted inside me.

I feel a place and a people and a sequence of events that want to be born. And for the first time in my life, I feel like doing research!

3 Comments:

Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Excellent analysis, Andrew. It's so important to write what you like to read and to know what that is. That you can feel it inside like a seed is just what you need to get going. I wish you a good journey.

Thu Jan 22, 10:49:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Chumplet - Sandra Cormier said...

May the seed grow into a bouncing baby book!

Sat Jan 24, 04:08:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger t said...

Why, yes, you are indeed full of great things. Great stuff!

Sat Jan 24, 05:52:00 pm GMT-5  

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