Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Kingsolver’

When I was a good bit younger, I had determined to write literary fiction. Why? Well, for one thing, that seemed to be the only fiction respected by the so-called “literati.” For another, it was the kind of fiction to which I was most often drawn . . . unless I was traveling. For airplane rides and long car trips or boat cruises, I indulged in what I referred to as my “junk reading.” Spy novels, mysteries and thrillers, particularly if they revolved around World War II. Think of Ken Follett or Jack Higgins.

Then I wrote my first novel. Surprise! It came out a lot more like my so-called “junk reading” than works by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver or Joyce Carol Oates. A page-turner rather than a book to be savored. While I felt proud of my accomplishment and subsequent awards seemed to verify its worth, deep inside I resolved to make my next work more “literary.”

I completed my second novel last year and it’s currently being considered for publication. Though it does have more literary elements—some poetry, symbolism, etc.—than did my first work, all in all, it still would likely be classified as genre fiction. Upmarket, perhaps, but still genre. And now I’m halfway through my third. This one is definitely genre fiction. In fact, I’ve crossed over into an entirely different genre—YA fantasy.

I felt guilty about giving up my initial goal until I came across a fascinating essay by David Mamet entitled “The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius.” It’s in a great anthology of essays put out by The New York Times called, “Writers [on Writing].”

Mamet points out that “for the past thirty years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers: John Le Carré, George Higgins and Patrick O’Brian. Each year, of course, found the press discovering some writer whose style, provenance and choice of theme it found endearing. These usually trig, slim tomes shared a wistful and self-commendatory confusion at the multiplicity of life and stank of Art. But the genre writers wrote without sentimentality; their prose was concise and perceptive; in it the reader sees the life of which they wrote, rather than the writer’s ‘technique.’” This coming from a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright! One of the “literati.”

As he puts it, “the purpose of literature is to Delight. To create or endorse the Scholastic is a craven desire. It may yield a low-level self-satisfaction, but how can this compare with our joy at great, generous writing? With our joy of discovery of worth in the simple and straightforward? Is this Jingoism? The use of the term’s a wish to side with the powerful, the Curator, the Editor. The schoolmaster’s bad enough in the schoolroom; I prefer to keep him out of my bookshelf.”

Many of today’s so-called classics were genre pieces: Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote, even War and Peace. So, whether I’m writing women’s fiction, mainstream fiction, or even young adult fantasy, I will no longer consider myself second-class. It all comes down to the story, in the end, and genre writers are brilliant at telling a story. I will never again call such stories “junk reading.”


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While this is closely aligned with characterization, it really does something a bit more. Good dialogue can make a character pop off the page and that’s exactly what we want to have happen as writers. But it’s not easy to do. Again, I’ll quote one of my favorite novelists:

“Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. It can be an elegant way to package some of a novel’s most crucial information. But you do have to work hard to keep it vernacular and well paced. I construct the fictional conversations in my head and listen carefully. It might seem easier to put words in the mouths of my own invented characters than the historical figures who also appear in the story—Frida and Diego, for example. But really there was little difference. By the time I’d read their personal diaries and everything else, their voices were coming through loud and clear. Sometimes their words came straight from the record. The conversations with my protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, are all invented, of course, but it was engaging to fit everything together. When I went into the studio to record the audio book, I realized I was hearing these characters plainly in my mind, so I did my best to replicate those accents and intonations. This meant acting out conversations between characters who were Mexican, Russian, French, Mexican American, Ashevillean, and so forth, in various combinations. If I thought too much about it, my brain might blow a fuse. So I just channeled the voices as I heard them.”

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna

And here’s an example from that same novel:

“Señora, sorry to disturb. Olunda sent me to get your plates from lunch.”

“No wonder she won’t come fetch the dishes herself, she’s ashamed of that jocoque.” She glanced up. “Olunda la Rotunda. Do they still call her that?”

“Not if they’re still alive, señora.”

“How does she get so fat on her own cooking? Look at me, I’m vanishing.”

“Fried bread with syrup is her secret.”

She made a little puzzled scowl. “And you, skinny creature. What’s your name?”

“It didn’t please you much the first time. When you wrote it in the ledger.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’re that one. The unpronounceable.” She seemed to wake up, sitting up straighter. When she looks at you her eyes are like lit coals inside the hearth of those shocking eyebrows. “What does Diego call you?”

“Muchacho, mix some more plaster! Muchacho, bring me my lunch!”

She laughed. It was a good impersonation.

You definitely get a strong idea of the personalities of both the young protagonist, Harrison (who cooks and does odd jobs for the famous artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo) and the fiery Frida.

Next week, I’ll post something about dialogue in literary fiction, plus a list of techniques given by Karen Joy Fowler, the author of The Jane Austen Book Club. She definitely falls into the literary fiction camp, but many of her techniques apply to dialogue in genre fiction, as well.

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Readers, particularly those who read a lot, love to be able to pick up on clues early in the story that might point to where the plot or a certain character is headed. They also don’t always have perfect memories and may well have forgotten an important point made earlier in the story. That’s why it’s important to use dialogue, at times, to either foreshadow coming events or remind the reader of something important that was established earlier.

Here’s an excellent example, in my opinion, of foreshadowing in a bit of dialogue from Leah in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible:

“It’s a heavenly paradise in the Congo, and sometimes I want to live here forever.”

Those of you who have read the story will know exactly what I’m talking about and the rest of you can no doubt make an educated guess. (By the way, if you haven’t read this, you really ought to.)

I found another terrific example of foreshadowing early on in the book Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott:

“You did well to find Elizabeth. Find Elizabeth, find the seventeenth century, we always say. She has a gift.”

“You talk about her as if she’s still here.” I put my hand to the back of my neck suddenly. Something—the wind, a twig, a wind-blown leaf—had touched me there.

“Oh, but she is still here. I haven’t seen her yet, but she’s here all right. There are others here too. Don’t you feel them?”

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I wish I had time to go back and do the research to prove my point in this posting. But I don’t. I’m trying to do one last revision of Laps before tossing it out there into the big ocean of agents and seeing if it gets picked up or sinks. So going back to re-read or scan through several different books is simply not possible at this time. If it were, I’d be able to give you exact numbers and references.

Nevertheless, I have been amazed of late how many of the novels (and manuscripts) I’ve recently read feature the word “tendril” more than once. Suzanne Collins used it several times in both The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire. I believe I came across it more than once in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Carol Lynch Williams’s The Chosen One. I’d have to say, however, that the winner is the novel I completed on Sunday. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott must feature that word at least five or six times.

How about you? Are you finding this word used more and more frequently? I actually used to like the word but, as they say, “familiarity breeds contempt.” What’s wrong with saying a “lock” of hair? Must it be a “tendril?” After all, tendrils refer more to plants, but the way I’ve seen it used (or shall I say overused) lately, I shouldn’t be surprised if its meaning slowly evolves away from the plant kingdom.

“Tendril” is not a common word, or at least it didn’t use to be. And that is precisely why it stands out so much to me in a story, particularly if used repeatedly. I suppose writers find it a touch poetic and so it appeals to them on that level. But I believe it’s reached the point of saturation.

How about you? Have you noticed it much in your readings? Do you like to use it yourself? Speak up, all you tendril-loving writers! I’m open to a discussion of its merits, as well as its weaknesses.

In the meantime, I’ve begun to read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel,  A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan (this latter one with my son). You can be sure I’ll be keeping count of each and every “tendril” I come across.

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