Who Will Tell the Story?

I had the pleasure of spending a Saturday morning with the Calgary Regional English Language Arts Council teachers last weekend. They meet twice a year; this fall their discussion was around the study of the novel. I was delighted to be invited to do a presentation. In another life, I could easily have chosen English teacher as a vocation. I’m indebted to two English teachers who set me on this writing path way back in high school. My three children all had similar good fortune in having fine English teachers when they were in school—hugely important to me, because I wanted to raise readers and writers no matter what career path they chose. Talking with the teachers, listening to their strategies and passion for teaching the novel, I was affirmed in my belief that our children are in good hands.

The subject of the morning pleased me too. I have spent a significant portion of the seventeen years or so I’ve been writing wrestling with novels. The first will remain forever in the drawer. Typical, I think, to have one that needs to be written off as an exercise before getting on with the one that matters.

Given license to choose my own slant on novels and writing for the presentation, I decided on:

Who Will Tell the Story: The choice of narrator and the vantage point from which a story will be told is part craft, part intuition, part trial-and-error, and one of the most important decisions the novelist will make.

I’ve been aware for a long time that I’m profoundly influenced in my reading by narrative voice. Long after plot details and literary sleight-of-hand are forgotten, I can remember the voices of characters. I can hear Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, and Harper Lee’s Scout in Mockingbird, in my head. In my own writing, a story often begins with a voice in my head that will not stop talking. When that happens, the decision about the narrator, the vantage point from which a story will be told especially in a short story, is largely intuitive. Sometimes, though, there is more than one voice or the story begins with setting rather than character. This was the case with my first novel, Running Toward Home. Many years ago, I was at the Calgary Zoo with my youngest son and two of his friends, and as I watched these little boys climbing and hiding inside the caves in the prehistoric park, I thought—what a fantastic place to hide, what a story world this could be. It was at least year before a conversation about a child who was an habitual runner gave me the character I was seeking. As soon as I knew that the character was a 12 year old boy, I knew his name was Corey, and that he had a foster mother, and a very young mother named Tina. This was Corey’s story and I struggled to find his voice. It was quiet, tentative, and I was sure it was unreliable. Tina’s voice, which sometimes interrupted his, was even less reliable. So how to get to the whole story? Maybe the foster mother would be a good person to tell at least part of this story. She was much easier. She has a voice, people have told me, that is strongly reminiscent of my own. Sometimes that happens. A voice that kept intruding on hers was that of her husband. So I let him in as well. And then, there was Corey’s great-grandfather who is a significant character in the backstory; an important voice but a reluctant one, the voice of a private man. His was the most difficult. So what began as a story about a boy, told in his voice, a voice I knew would be difficult to sustain, became also a story about a woman who lets this boy into her home and her heart. In the end, I had a chorus of five. At the teachers’ session, I read from two of the voices. The excerpts are here: excerpts

My collection of short stories, A Crack in the Wall, was written over a period of 15 years and represents a lot of exploring and learning about voice and point of view. Each story involved a decision about narrator, and the choice between first and third person, past and present tense.

My second novel, Delivery, began with the voice of a character I knew well. Lynn Bishop was the main character and narrator of my first book, the one that remains in the drawer. She resurfaced on a trip we made to Quadra Island on the west coast. We were driving back to Victoria to fly home and I suddenly realized that Lynn was riding with me and telling me that she had a big problem and she thought that Quadra Island might be the place for the resolution. When I was back home at my computer, I found Lynn’s problem. Her 20 year old daughter, Heather, was pregnant and Lynn was not at all happy with the plan Heather was making. Heather, I knew from that first dead book as well, was a prickly girl and she would not let me tell this story from Lynn’s POV alone. As it evolved, the novel did become almost as much Heather’s story as Lynn’s. It was challenging to write these two voices. Lynn’s not quite so much because I’d had all that practice with the prequel, but Heather was more complicated. One of the interesting things that arose out of exploring both these voices was that while mother and daughter seem so totally different in personality and how they see the world, they discover that they are in fact far more alike than different. The novel is set in motion by Lynn’s dismay at the fact that Heather has fallen into the same trap, an unplanned pregnancy, that set the course of her own life. In the beginning of this novel, when Heather decides she’s carrying through with her plan to place baby Beegee for adoption, Lynn takes uncharacteristic action and straps the baby in a laundry basket, puts her in the back of the car and heads for the hills. In this case Quadra Island. She knows Heather will follow her and she anticipates that so will Jack, her ex-husband, Heather’s father, grandfather of the baby. Again, with the teachers, I read excerpts in both voices. Those excerpts are here: excerpts