How would you describe the relationship, if any, between the novels you write? Do you consciously attempt to establish consisency in style or theme, so that your work has a signature “voice” that you are developing? Or with each new book do you attempt to reinvent your writing style and approach?
—Elizabeth Sheinkman, London
Some of these questions are hard! I have lots of thoughts about this one, Elizabeth, but for some reason it reminds me of a bit of craft wisdom I heard from the writer Gary Soto and have often passed on to writing students. He said the fiction writer has five things to use in writing: dialogue, exposition, description, gesture, and thought. That’s exactly right, and it means that, if there’s a problem a writer is having a hard time solving, it may be that something is lodged in the wrong place, or that elements are put together in the wrong proportion or not woven together when they need to be.
You can maybe see where I’m going with this. A lot of a writer’s style really seems to come from which of these elements are foregrounded and how. As a younger writer, I was sure I could fall out of bed and write description, and I sometimes got carried away with it, which is easy to do. And I’ve always been aware of the challenge in making dialogue spare enough to feel real and keeping exposition from sounding like instruction. While capturing characters’ thoughts has generally been pretty simple for me, that’s something else I have to be careful about so I don’t go all Henry James on the reader (though I still think he’s lovely). Gesture is the thing I have to work hardest at. Giving characters enough unique but characteristic things to do often has me really digging. It’s fairly simple in a battle scene where action is intrinsic. But if characters spend much time alone, as some of mine do, there’s a need to keep something going in terms of movement in the story, something physical happening to keep the reader on the imaginative page.
In anything I write, these are the things I bring to the computer, and I think the particular way I wrestle with them or, at the best moments, fly, is what creates my writing style, though I don’t think it’s a signature. I’m not sure a reader picking up Suite Harmonic and reading about Kate Given’s attempt to give a paper at the New Harmony Minerva Club would necessarily think it’s the work of the same writer who’s written about the particular angst of Will Wheelock as he ages in Time Stamp. The fact is I’ve always written stories that have sort of grabbed me by the throat. They’ve been stories I’ve wanted to write and they’ve ranged very widely in terms of subject matter and place and period. I used to worry, in fact, that I wasn’t the sort of writer who was establishing a clear style, but what I think I meant was that I’ve never written to a basic template in terms of, say, focusing my attention on young working women and their misadventures in love, or putting the upper middle class in New England under a microscope or writing reliable mysteries or thrillers or creating characters who are always some variant of wacky.
But I do think I have a voice as a writer that has to do with the way I jockey the building blocks of language and the way I focus on physical place as well as on the interior way we experience the world and the way place and experience interact. I’ve never analyzed this, but I also think there’s a thematic unity across my work. I’m always moved by people’s inner struggles and their ways of trying to live lives that make rough, if painful, sense to them, while they attempt to navigate their important relationships. None of this creation of voice or thematic unity is really conscious on my part. I approach each story on its own terms. Basically, I write to the story and to the characters who grow and inhabit it, and maybe that means I reinvent myself as a writer with each story, though it may be that the stories keep reinventing the same me.