This post is a guest contribution from Mason Engel, an independent author filmmaker who has created a fascinating documentary called Books Across America. Read more about that below.
Lately, I’ve been hearing voices
I’m talking about author voices, real-life author voices during interviews.
I’m working on a documentary for book lovers called Books Across America. The film is about a crazy road trip when I traveled to 50 states, read 50 books, and interviewed 50 authors … all in 50 days.
So yes, I’ve heard a lot of author voices lately. I’ve read the prose of those authors, too. And you know what? Every author’s voice on the page was different than their voice in the interview. What’s up with that? A voice is a voice is a voice, isn’t it?
A previous post here defined what voice is. It discusses how writers develop it and whether they believe it’s a consciously honed skill, or an all-or-nothing instinct. A recent survey proves the diversity of authors’ views on the subject. During our nearly two months on the road, we experienced that diversity firsthand. In the interviews, of course, but, more interestingly, in the books themselves.
I’ll describe the narrative voice of three novels I read on the road, and point to examples that illustrate why these voices are compelling. By the end, you’ll be one step closer to developing—or fine-tuning—a voice of your own.
Salvage This World – Michael Farris Smith
THE SETTING: the bottomlands of southern Mississippi
THE PLOT: a mother and her toddler flee from the clutches of a cult with disturbing beliefs
THE FIRST SENTENCE:
She stood bathed in twilight, the dust in her hair and a kid on her hip and she stared at the approaching storm as if trying to figure out how to wrangle the thunderheads and steer them to a distant and parched land where desperate souls would pay whatever ransom she demanded.
In analyzing voice, the first sentence is usually a good place to start, because a good first sentence will contain the first whisper of voice. Michael’s first sentence is more than a whisper.
A disciple of Faulkner, and a lifelong local of Oxford, Mississippi, Michael throws down the gauntlet right away. There are going to be some long sentences in this one, he seems to tell us, and I don’t always respect punctuation because sometimes life happens too fast and too all-at-once to split up with commas, and my characters’ thoughts don’t fit into neat little boxes anyway, and I like that word—“and”—and I’m going to make it work for me.
The second sentence?
The acres of sugar cane cut to nubs surrounding the house.
From a run-on to a fragment. From long to short. A sustained blow of wind to a moment of silence.
It’s all very stylized, isn’t it? That can be okay. It can even be good if the execution is up to par. And it can be great if the style of the voice serves the story. The voice in Salvage This World falls into the third category. Why?
- The execution is professional. This is not Mr. Smith’s first rodeo, and it shows.
- The voice doesn’t just relay the story; it adds to the story.
First, it reflects the setting. The novel takes place in storm-torn Mississippi, with another storm on the way. The world is fragmented. Why should Michael’s sentences be any different? The winds are unpredictable, furious for a while, dead silent for a while longer. Much like Michael’s lyrical alternation between long and short sentences.
Second, the story satisfies the main prerequisite for having an extremely stylized voice: the characters are extreme. The book is about people isolated in the bayous of southern Mississippi, people who see a storm on the horizon, watch their neighbors evacuate, and then stay. It’s about a cult and a cave in a swamp that might contain the paranormal. It’s a strange book. Delightfully strange, to be sure, but strange all the same.
So Michael can get away with having a stylized voice, because he’s writing a stylized book. Could you drag and drop his voice into a suburban romance novel? Absolutely not. If your voice would work for someone else’s story, it probably wouldn’t work for yours.
Every Man a King – Walter Mosley
THE SETTING: modern-day New York
THE PLOT: a black detective is tasked with proving the innocence of a white extremist
THE FIRST SENTENCE:
I drove my tiny cream-colored Bianchina up the FDR to Seventy-First, crossed the park, passing the Strawberry Fields memorial, and then made my way up West End a few blocks until turning left, finally arriving at an imposing gate in the Great Wall—the only entrance to a sprawling estate overlooking the West Side Highway and the Hudson.
What do you notice about Walter’s first sentence? Do you feel the pervasive sense of familiarity? His protagonist, Joe King Oliver, drives “up the FDR”. He crosses “the park”. He arrives at an estate overlooking “the Hudson.” He’s not on FDR Drive. He doesn’t cross Central Park. The estate doesn’t overlook the Hudson River. The character doesn’t articulate these things anymore than a fish describes the water it’s in. We know right away that Joe King Oliver is a New Yorker through and through. We know that without Joe saying a word and without Walter telling us outright. It’s all in the voice.
Now let’s consider two character descriptions. The first is of a high-class New York gangster that Joe King Oliver goes to for information:
That day the big, big man wore a three-piece maroon suit with a pale blue dress shirt and a tie that seemed to be derived from the colors of the dark rainbow that adorned a shallow oil slick.
A maroon suit? Dark rainbows and oil slicks? Walter conjures the image of a slick, high-rolling gangster that we’ve seen a million times before.
Now consider the description of a second character: an old hustler in Harlem.
[Lamont]’s face glistened with the fever of gambling … Blackjack. It was the first word of an ancient incantation that sometimes allowed a poor man or woman to dream about deliverance. Lamont grinned at those cards.
We see this character too. We can picture his face on a man throwing dice down an alley, or coming home late and telling his wife he lost this time, but he’ll win it all back next time. This is the face of a gambling man in a big city.
One more excerpt. At one point early on in the novel, Joe describes his emotional state (to himself) as “everything good and everything bad that makes me human.” This sentence contains the theme of contrast carried through the entire novel. The good and bad, white and black, rich and poor. And like the previous two passages, it relies on a particular kind of voice.
From a million books, movies, and road trips, we all have an image of New York in our heads. Joe’s familiarity with the city evokes our image of a New Yorker. His descriptions of poor gamblers and wealthy gangsters call on our New York stereotypes. And his recurring philosophical references to the highs and lows, to haves and have notes, conjures our picture of skyscrapers towering over the projects.
No one work of fiction will undo our preconceived image of a place as iconic as New York. Walter knows this and doesn’t try to undo that image; he uses it. His voice, in many ways, is the voice of New York.
This is something to remember for writers who operate in a singular setting. Setting not only defines the context of your story; it can also define the voice you use to relay your story.
The Chaperone – Laura Moriarty
THE PLOT: The young flapper-era icon, Louise Brooks, who harbors secret ambitions of fame, moves to New York with a Wichita neighbor woman as her guide. A woman, it turns out, who has secrets of her own.
THE SETTING: 1920s New York
THE FIRST SENTENCE:
The first time Cora heard the name Louise Brooks, she was parked outside the Wichita Library in a Model-T Ford, waiting for the rain to stop.
From the back cover, we know most of the novel takes place in New York, and yet we start in Wichita, Kansas. Unlike Joe King Oliver in Every Man a King, Cora—Laura Moriarty’s protagonist—is an outsider to the city. So is the young Louise Brooks, whom Cora is escorting. In different ways when they first arrive in the city, we feel both of their inexperience.
Louise had been like this since the moment they stepped into the main concourse of Grand Central Station. Even with people just behind them and just in front of them, so many speaking strange languages and wearing the dark clothes of foreigners, some smoking, some coughing, all exhaling too closely, Louise said she felt as if she were walking into her dreams. Cora had only nodded in response, her gaze moving around the concourse, taking in the arched blue ceiling and the wide exits on every side. It was a magnificent space, brighter than the station in Wichita and big enough to swallow it whole. But if she’d been there before, if the train she’d boarded with the other children had left from that very station, she didn’t remember. Nothing felt familiar.
There are two things to note here.
First, Laura doesn’t lean on New York’s “voice” as Walter does. Why should she? Her characters are not of the city; they’re experiencing it as outsiders. New York appears not as an ever-present, all-surrounding context, but as an external source of wonder (for Louise) and potential dangers (for Cora).
Consider those differences in perspectives: the young and excited vs. the adult and cautious. These attitudes express themselves through the narrative voice.
Cora demands that her charge dress chastely, not wander too far, and refers to men not wanting women who have already been “unwrapped” like day-old candy. Much of this can be chalked up to the time period, but there lives in Cora a more specific breed of caution. This is expressed in how Cora tells the story, always with hesitance, second-guesses, and nervous excitement. The reader assumes this caution is only the productive quality of a good chaperone. It’s only later that we learn its true source. Cora moves through the city with hesitation less because of her natural conservative values, and more because of a personal fear: she’s afraid of what New York may unearth about her past.
Laura Moriarty employs a subtle trick here: her voice foreshadows a central character trait of her protagonist. It makes sense for her character from the beginning, but when we reach the end, it becomes perfect.
What’s your voice?
How do you know when you’ve found your voice?
Can you stylize your prose like Michael Farris Smith? And does that style serve your story and represent your characters?
Can you lean on the voice of your setting like Walter Mosley does with New York? Are we familiar enough with your world or the archetypes of your characters that you can speak to us in a language we immediately recognize?
Is your protagonist hiding something from us—maybe from herself—that can be foreshadowed by the narrative voice? Can you, like Laura Moriarty, hide your secrets in plain sight?
These are hard questions to answer. So when in doubt, remember this rule of thumb: If your voice works for someone else’s story, it probably doesn’t work for yours.
More about “Books Across America”
If you’re curious about that documentary I mentioned, the one where I travel to 50 states, read 50 books, and interview 50 authors all in 50 days, you can check out the whole story—and reserve your copy of the film—on our Kickstarter page. Maybe then you’ll know what I mean when I talk about hearing author voices.
Happy writing in the meantime. And someday soon, I hope to hear your voice too.
About the Author
Mason Engel is an independent author and filmmaker. His sci-fi novels have earned bestseller status on Amazon, and his bookish documentaries have appeared on public television and major literary festivals around the country. His upcoming feature-length documentary, Books Across America, documents his road trip to all 50 states, on which he reads 50 books and interviews 50 authors, all in 50 days.