The more you know…The Author-Narrator-Character Merge

 

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I’m in my happy place when I’m with a good book on writerly devices, and I love to experiment with what I have learnt and attempt to incorporate that into whatever I’m working on, just for the fun of it, but there is a downside to this, I can’t unknow things that I have learnt. I can’t write and ignore great advice, can I?

I recently read The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-Time Novelists Wind Up With Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists, an essay by Frederick Reiken. I definitely don’t feel like I have an uninteresting protagonist in The Neighbour, after all, people either love him or hate him, no in between, but it’s an element of writing that I don’t think I have thought about.

Reiken states that a writer will often fail to distinguish between, and keep separate, the author, the narrator, and the protagonist.

Understanding this separation is easier with first person narrative, there is the author, there is the narrator who is a character separate from the author, and there are characters in the story. In regard to third person narratives it becomes more complex. Reiken refers to psychic distance between a narrator and character- an idea put forward first by John Gardener. The division between author, narrator, and character is much more complex and there you get more into an author’s own style and the varying degrees of psychic distance, the idea of which requires more space and thought than I can dedicate here, but I urge you to seek out this article and give it a close read. Perhaps I might tease it out in another post soon.

I’m pleased to say (if you’ve read The Neighbour you’ll understand why I’m pleased :)) that I went to great lengths, many many drafts, to create a character that had nothing of me, the author, in him and the style is more what is called Free Indirect Discourse. Free Indirect Discourse has the narrator reporting the thoughts and dialogue of the character. The narrator reports all that the character does, sees and feels almost as if the narrator is the character, except she is still that third person. I feel this style gives the reader more access to the thoughts and feelings of the character and is a more engaging read.

If you are a fan of writing this way you are in good company, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen were all fans of Free Indirect Discourse. But this idea of the Author-Narrator-Character Merge is an element of writing that will forever be on my mind when I’m writing, I can’t unknow it!

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Reading to put your brain in the right state – Steven Carroll, The Time We Have Taken

When I’m working on something, I like to read from any of my favourite books to put my brain in the right frame of mind. You know, slow it down a bit and find a rhythm. I pick up a book and open to any page and read. Today’s read was from Steven Carroll’s The Time We Have Taken pg 132  (Fourth Estate paperback 2007)

You can see the influence from one of Steven Carroll’s favourite authors, Proust, in the long sentences, the rhythm, and the use of the senses.

The smell of previous-night’s-beer is unmistakable. And with the whiff of old beer she is simultaneously seeing Vic falling through the front door, stumbling through the house, and that old familiar feeling of wretchedness is upon her once again, and the memory of that wretched madness that swelled her heart to the point of exploding all those years ago is now more than a memory. It’s a smell. And smells make things happen all over again. And she knows she doesn’t want these memories again, but knows they won’t go till the smell does. Then she sees further signs of disruption, even as she’s dwelling on this business of smell and weight and love and why it had to be like that. For she has entered Michael’s old bedroom, which has changed little since he left, and noticed immediately that the bed has been disturbed. Slept in. And with the observation comes an involuntary shiver. A half-hearted attempt has been made to make it, a quilt thrown over the bed almost contemptuously. Brazenly. And as this strangers perfume– which she knows to be a common, cheap scent that young girls these days go for — as this strangers perfume mingles with the sight of the shabbily remade bed, the word ‘tart’ comes to her again. And she is convinced that Michael has not only sneaked back into the house when she was not there like some creature with guilt written all over his face, he has dragged a tart back into their house, her house, with him. And she knows straight away that this is not the act of her Michael, upon whom she rested the weight of the love she was left with (when Vic couldn’t carry it any more), her Michael who had always told her that her dresses were just right when the street sneered. No, it wasn’t him, but some other Michael with a tart in his ear.

Jesus Sandals and Anchovette, by Joanna Atherfold Finn

 

 

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Delicate and sweet writing from the point-of-view of an eight-year-old child, but what is really great about this piece is that it’s written in second person. I haven’t read a second person story before this that isn’t in the form of letter or diary. (If you know of any, comment below I’d love to read it) In this instance it gives the reader a strong sense of being right with the character and somehow helps to put you in the mind of the child. There’s nothing bad to say about this; it’s gorgeous, a must read.

This story is from the Amanda Lohrey Selects series at Spineless Wonders Publishing.

There is so much information about the little girl (and the family) to be gleaned from these few opening sentences.

You look out the back window of the lime-green Galant to the curved struts of the rusting balcony, the top step where you grinned (gap-toothed) for your first-day-of-school photo, the pine tree with its dying centre. Behind the gate is your cubby house with foundations so deep it can’t be moved. Next door, Mr Carter is spraying his cumquat trees. You picture Mrs Carter inside sitting at the kitchen table doing her crossword, and Jesus hanging from his cross, observing her forlornly. She has told you he is all-knowing. You wonder why he doesn’t drop a hint now and then.

The sentences are dripping with descriptions of colour and images,

A row of blue-headed pins protruded from her pillowy lips. Her smooth forehead bobbed as you revolved in tiny increments.

and descriptions that can pull you back right there with the little girl. We know where they are even before it’s made clear.

He leads you through glass doors with his hand clamped around the back of your neck, past nicotine-yellow tables, over kaleidoscope carpet. A row of men are perched on stools, their thick arms bent across blue towels, their hairy legs dangling. Their hair is shrinking into their skulls. They are stunted and swollen like the puffer fish you poke with a stick on the beach.

 

 

Review: Writing in Virginia’s Shadow, Mary Pomfret.

Writing in Virginia’s Shadow

by Mary Pomfret

56 pages

Ginninderra Press

Writing in Virginia’s Shadow is an eclectic collection of short fiction works presented as short stories, vignettes, email, and letters that explore what it means to be a female, working class, fiction writer. The writing contemplates similar ideas as those addressed by Virginia Woolf, hence the title.

It would take a long essay and a month of days to delve into the many themes presented through the fictional characters within the interconnected works so I only touch on a few.

We begin with Margot, an aspiring writer, who receives a rejection letter from a magazine, and is confronted with harsh criticism:

The devices you use to connect stories, such as recurring metaphors, motifs, related characters and the repeated theme of the ‘poor woebegone struggling women writer’, are tedious, pretentious and far from subtle. …We feel we want to scream at all these characters, ‘Get a life!’ but of course we wouldn’t; we are far too polite.’ 7

As the reader you feel the immediate sense of Margot’s despondency as she attempts to take an objective view of the criticism that is inherently a personal attack on Margot as a writer. The fictional letter pulls the rug out from under her and seems to mock Margot in such an awful way:

‘Margot, your namesake, who is seemingly the fictitious author of all the stories, intolerable. Eliminate her.’ 8

The rejection letter read in the context of the book as a whole is at once comical and awful, but we die a little on the inside for Margot at the thought of such a letter which can also be read as instruction to Margo to eliminate herself. This idea of exposing Margot is replicated in a letter she receives from Virginia (Woolf):

And as for you Margot. Where are you? You are weaving in and out of text, hiding behind words and phrases like a frightened child hides behind her mother’s skirt. Who are you? You must come out and declare yourself. You are the author, the writer of stories, are you not? 38

Margot is given opportunity to respond to Virginia Woolf in a letter and says simply:

If I am honest, I guess I am just plain scared. 41

but she defends herself in explanation:

…I feel that writing of stories, stories with female characters who are from the working class, will do more to advance women’s position in society…because such stories would be accessible to more women then are the writings of academic theorists. 42

One of the common frailties of the writer is explored through the character Leah – the not-good-enough-fear – shown in the form of Leah chastising herself:

When it came to her turn to introduce herself, she felt vaguely fraudulent. It had been over a years since she had written anything of substance. She muttered something about hoping this workshop would cure her writer’s block. 19

Leah, an emerging writer who competes for literary attention with her unsupportive writer husband,

He was getting sick of minding the kids every Tuesday night while she went off to her writing group. Old ladies and retired nuns – what would they know about the art and craft of writing? 11

finds herself struggling to live up to the standards of a writing group due to her family commitments:

This was a tall order – writing for a solid hour. It was a rare event for Leah to have the opportunity to write uninterrupted for an hour. Most of her writing was done in opportunistic snatches, while waiting to pick up children from soccer, or when a DVD was so engrossing that no one asked her where their socks were or what was to eat. The last time she wrote for an hour at a stretch was while she was waiting in the hospital room when her son had broken is arm. Leah picked up her pen and gazed around the room. All of the group were writing with such intensity. 22

It  is brought home here, that Leah’s lack of confidence stems directly from her lack of support from her husband.

A message that comes through strongly in this book is that of how subjective (while hiding behind the mask of objectivity) reactions to fiction can be. Margot takes a battering of a variety of opinions from her email critique group:

‘She always had to steel herself for this monthly task of reading the email responses of her fellow writers.’ 27

She faces a maze of subjective advice,

…I am a Poet after all.) I suggest you condense it a little… 27

…Loved your story. I do suspect, however, that your male protagonist is a bit of a wank. Sometimes, Margot, I think that you don’t think much of male writers. Got to watch that, you know. It can sometimes sound like sour grapes.’ 27

and has to decipher the intentions of critiquers:

The problem with your story is that it doesn’t really make much sense. Even so, I like it and I’m not really sure why. I think you are headed on a quest. Do you know what it is that you are looking for? XX Nyall.’

I think Nyall has something else on his mind. We all know a Nyall don’t we?

One of my favourite sections in the book is an interaction between the character Louise and her plumber husband Norm.

Why the hell are you always making up stupid fucking stories? Why are you always telling lies? Her reply was stuck in her throat like snow white’s apple. She spluttered, struggled to get out the words. ‘Because…because I’m a writer – that’s what I do. I make up stories. Fuckhead. I make up stories to survive.’ 31

I’m a bit partial to calling someone a fuckhead so this appeals to me, but as she blurts out ‘I make up stories to survive’, it’s an instinctive blurt, and she hits on a truth for many writers that they write because they have to; they write to understand themselves, and the world they live in.

I love the reference to the poisoned apple, intentional or not.  Those words Louise speaks to her husband, Norm are bound to begin a rift that may cause her to have to ‘go to sleep’ in relation to writing, to keep the peace, and forget writing completely.

Writing in Virginia’s Shadow is abundant with themes and ideas about writers. It can be read as simply as a series of stories about the lives of writers, or, it can be read as an insight into the state of the writer in all her phases, or, you may go deeper and read to examine the reflexive, post-modern style of the work. As a fan of meta-fiction, I find the latter adds a meaningful depth to the writing allowing a sense of realism that draws the reader in.

Either way, I urge you to take your time with Writing in Virginia’s Shadow, and give it the thought that it asks you to, and it deserves.

Interview with Mary Pomfret 

Mary lives in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. You can find out more about Mary at her Blog.

Chat rooms and identity: brb: a verse novel, by Maree Dawes

 

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Brb: be right back

A Verse Novel

By Maree Dawes

109 pages

Thank you to Bronwyn Mehan at Spineless Wonders for this e-book copy.

Brb is a first person verse novel that remembers the days when chatting on the internet was new, when chatters revelled in immediate, words-only, communication. Remember ICQ?

I hadn’t read any verse novels before, I know, shame on me, but I’ve had a quick look around and I’m glad this is my first foray. Brb captures that immediacy and quick-fire fast-fingers-chat with a luscious blend of prose and poetry. It uses online language like email and chat talk to take the reader, with ‘Bodicea’ our protagonist, as she stumbles and learns how to use chat rooms and falls so deeply into that world of other chatters and painful trysts where she is forced to question her actions, and her  identity:  what is adultery? Who is she really as she straddles both her worlds?

Her friend and husband take measures to draw her out again back into her lonely life as wife and mother where she almost has to relearn how to live and love and communicate in a life not governed by the fantasy created by words. (Funny, in this instance, how easily it is to turn ‘word’ into ‘sword’.)

 Think again

She says

You’ll never feel that in chat

Never see my eyes fill

Never taste our tears

In the ocean

This is what she believes

Chat is fantasy

How many times

Would she need to slap my face

Before I believed it too

She won’t be able to I know

One slap

All she can do

The nowords space

Between the slap

And wishing

You never had.

pg 97

Brb is a fascinating, fun, and sad portrayal of a lonely housewife trek into nineties chat-rooms. I love the use of chat-room language, the phrases, short-hand and email, and yes, I do remember chat-rooms. What a wonderful portrayal of the era that was the dawning of the complex use of our lovely internet!

The Spineless Wonders Book club will be chatting about this book on March 13 on their face book page.

Crossing ethical lines: Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis-Read

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Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis-Read

Xoum Publishing 2013

121 pages.

 

Jessica is a divorced and single health worker whose children have moved on with their lives, leaving her to negotiate her relationships from a distance and to grapple with a ‘hollow and sore heart’. When she becomes increasingly entangled in the life of her client her own needs allow her to go where logic might tell her she shouldn’t.

From the beginning we know we are in the hands of an author who cares about words and what lies between them. Jane Jervis-Read creates a haunting and wanting aura with her sensitive writing:

But she will already be walking out the back, screen door sighing closed behind her, slippers scuffing the concrete, spanning the distance between the kitchen and the shed. The corrugated roof casts a shadow over the entrance… But inside the shed a world awaits. From the window I watch the shadow drink her in. p2

When Jessica takes on the job as carer to Eloise we follow her tender path along a road that both she and we know she shouldn’t go down. It echoes the decisions we fail or neglect to make, or choose to ignore, that allow us to follow the heart in search of something we need. It puts the question to us that we may not like to explore, should we go to places we know we shouldn’t for the sake of cotton-balling the heart?

It meant something when Eloise pulled me in. It meant I am sad and the world is falling like leaves around me. It meant you are a warm heart next to me and your heart loves and listens where mine is hollow and sore and calling out like a wild, hungry mouth. It meant I need you…Something is starting and something is ending. I need relief from my sorrow and you are it, your hand is it, your warm heart beating beside me is it. p66

As we would in reality, Jessica questions her actions and explains them away with care:

She was crying with growing intensity. You don’t leave someone alone in that state. You don’t say, Sorry but my shift is over.’ You can’t clock off. This may be that sort of job to some people but not to me. p53

And Jervis-Read does not shy from bringing truth to the story by allowing Jessica go into this blindly. Jessica knows she goes where she should not; she knows she has blurred ethical lines:

Her thigh slid between mine. I waited. What was I thinking in this moment? I can’t remember. Only the feeling of heat, from her bath-thickened flesh…Maybe I told myself, ‘You have come this far without knowing why – what reason is there to step out now?’…How wild and misguided a life can become, but the body maintains this simple truth: the elegant curve from the waist to the hip. p 83

And nor are the characters allowed to waft away in romantic views; the story is not without the tendrils of uncertainty you might find in a relationship wrought with baggage, illness and dependency:

Eloise smirked. She leant towards me and her robe fell open at the top. ‘I’ll follow you,’ she said. ‘If you go.’  p 63

The characters are beautifully painted on the page. We feel for Jessica as she navigates the emotions left in the wake of her divorce from her husband, and the feelings of estrangement from her children that seem to open her up as they go on with their lives:

Was I a good mother to my children? I think I was. Why then did they move away? p67

And out of this we accept and forgive Jessica. Had we only had access to the facts of the story – lonely carer takes advantage of a patient overcome with sadness for the loss of her life due to mental illness, and engages in physical intimacy – we might judge and condemn Jessica. Enormous credit goes to Jane Jervis-Read for enveloping the facts in a beautiful story that leads us to understand and forgive the characters.

When Eloise sobbed that guttural sob I recognised my own voice in her throat. I recognised the sobs of my children, of my mother too. I remembered my mother weeping when my father died and how I had held her. Eloise clutched at me and pulled me in through the blankets. She cried in my arm. p53

Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall is a beautifully written, honest and elegant tale of longing and loneliness; it turns the light on what a person will allow themselves to do to abate and caress those feelings and it tackles the questions around crossing ethical lines. Set in the university area around Carlton, Melbourne. I highly recommend you take on this novella and see how you fare.

Jane Jervis-Read and Alice Grundy from Seizure talk about her novel and novellas in general in a great audio interview here

You can purchase Jane’s book here.

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