I first learned about Mona Simpson when, in response to a story I had written for workshop, a UCLA Extension professor suggested I read her short story, “Lawns.” The obvious connection between the two stories was the subject matter: female protagonists who suffered sexual abuse. However, I had a lot to learn from Simpson. Subtlety, character development, scene sequence, for starters.
Often when reading literature or today’s best-sellers, I’m bored or unimpressed. This was not the case with My Hollywood. The novel, which took Simpson 10 years to complete, sucked me in and held me. It was the kind of book I took with me everywhere, using every spare moment to read, one of those books where I couldn’t wait to finish whatever else I was doing so I could read it.
In part this was because I identified with the speakers – I spend much of my time babysitting, so I’m familiar with child-raising questions and quandaries. I also identified with Claire’s issues as an artist: How does one make the time? How does one create the art with consistency and quality? And her questions about her romantic relationship: How much does one sacrifice? What does it take to be happy? Claire faced everything simultaneously. Isn’t that life?
And in part I couldn’t stop reading because the character voices were so strong. Every page held a unique description. Freeways flared, fingers steepled, daffodils were innocent as nuns. The sitter, a 52-year-old woman from the Philippines who was working in America so her own kids could go to school back home, had a clear dialect and unusual speech patterns.
In D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little, the character voice comes on strong from page one, and continues without a break through to the end of the book. In the first paragraph of Act One, title “Sh*t Happened,” the protagonist says:
God knows I tried my best to learn the ways of this world, even had inklings we could be glorious; but after all that’s happened, the inkles ain’t easy anymore. I mean – what kind of fucken life is this?
Vernon is a likeable, sympathetic character – I was gunning for him from the start, even when I wasn’t sure of his innocence. Even though there were times when I found the voice grating, when I wondered where this novel was really going, when I wished we could just get to action already, I was always on Vernon’s side. This is the power of a strong, well-crafted voice.
I knew I was going to like Room when I read the book’s Amazon page. Then it arrived in the mail and I started reading, only to have my excitement dampened five pages in. I put the book down, only to feel like I was missing something, and I picked it back up again. I forced myself through ten more pages – and then I was hooked. It’s hard to get into a five-year-old’s mind and stay there, especially when he has been trapped in a room his whole life. I thought as I read, This can’t possibly go on for 300 pages. We can’t be in this room, in this child’s mind, for that long.
While we may not stay in the room, we do stay in Jack’s head, and we learn to love him and his Ma. We are with them, sharing their experiences and emotions. We hope, we fear, we love. Emma Donoghue’s characters are complete and compelling. I loved this novel.
Voice has characters become people.
In high school, I once had an English teacher ask me to rate my writing abilities. I remember putting character voice as number one. Somewhere along the way, that got lost. Partly I think it had to do with the classes I took, where fiction professors heralded the simple styles of famous authors like Raymond Carver. Show only what is, what happens. Let the actions speak for themselves. I confused these teachings, took them to mean stripping away character voice. In the first draft of my novel, I tried to write only dialogue and actions. My readers were left wanting. Who was my protagonist? What did she think, feel? She was not a real person. In the second draft, I have found myself inserting and refining her voice. She has a ways to go to be like the characters in the above novels, but at least I have powerful models.