I’ve written before about the sense of a book’s voice — and how important that quality becomes when we’re reviewing submissions for the Discover program. Here are a couple of examples that illustrate the profound weight that voice takes on:
“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots.”
That’s the voice that drove more and more readers and reviewers to Justin Torres’s deceptively slim novel, We the Animals, last year and landed Torres on the National Book Foundation’s prestigious 5 Under 35 list this year.
“Not everyone’s life will be a great love story. I know that. My own “starter” marriage dissolved a couple of years ago, and aside from those first few months of the revolving door, I’ve spent much of the time alone.”
Meet Neill Bassett, the narrator of Scott Hutchins’s tremendously original debut novel, A Working Theory of Love, a Fall 2012 Discover pick. Neill’s life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would: newly single, alienated, and alone, he spends his days programming a computer to think and speak like his dead father.
Like We the Animals, Hutchins’s is a dazzling story of love and regret, reconciliation and forgiveness, of characters desperate to connect with other people (and without the first clue how), to find a tribe, a family, a place to belong.
Luckily for us, Hutchins and Torres were able to take the time to connect with each other via email, and their freewheeling conversation runs the gamut from talk of J. M. Coetzee and The Great Gatsby to birth order and method acting, among many other things.
Scott Hutchins: Story or voice. It is the chicken and egg of much of my writing. I think I tend to start with story — or an idea or a little anecdote I want to build around (what Henry James calls the “germ”) — and then go looking for the voice. I write to the voice. And then I often have to change the entire story, because it turns out I hadn’t understood it. When the voice clicks in then I know I have some purchase.
(It strikes me that this process may be ridiculously inefficient. Justin, hopefully you can give me some working tips?)
A Working Theory of Love, however, was written in a different way. I definitely started with voice. I was writing little bits here and there — never a scene that led to another scene — as I was scraping together work and life, and an intelligence (not mine) began to assert itself on the page. We call it voice, but it’s really much more. It’s a personality, a way of seeing the world, a past, a vision. Hopes and fears, of course, but also opinions. We humans, I’ve noticed, are full of opinions. That voice — the narrator’s name is Neill — began to bring all the little bits I was jotting down into its orbit. Then he basically took over my mind. I heard him as I walked down the street, listened to what he would say about current events or an overheard conversation. He was a good companion!
Thinking back on this, what’s especially funny and striking to me is those little bits started out in the third person. But I felt how that choice was weirdly distancing, whereas the first person was where the story could happen. Still, it took me a long time to admit I was writing a novel in the first person. Neill is at least as smart as I am (smarter actually, since he has the advantage of revision), and I always had it in my mind that the first-person narrator needed to be kind of dim. Maybe I was suffering from my own (dim) Faulknerian aspirations?
Justin Torres: For me, it’s voice, always voice. I think I follow the language into a story or a scene, and it is rare that I know what the ‘story’ is until I’ve written quite a bit. But I am fascinated, Scott, by your answer. I’ve heard other writers talk about characters taking over their minds and speaking to them. This sounds like schizophrenia to me, or more innocently, like an imaginary friend. Yet so many writers claim some version of this experience, and nothing like that has ever happened to me. I always feel very conscious of being the creator, the writer, the mastermind, of the piece. I am always aware that I am inventing. I think I’m jealous of writers whose characters visit them and talk to them, it sounds so curious and I’d love to hear more of how you experience Neill. Does he still talk to you? Does he have more to say? Or has he been exorcised by writing the novel?
I’m also interested in your take on first-person narration. Dim? Really? Why? I find the voice of your novel so affectingly intimate, both smart and honest. Do you mean by ‘dim’ that the tension of first-person narration comes from the gap between the narrator’s limited understanding of the world and their place in it, and the readers larger understanding of the narrator’s own limitations? I think third-person can, and does, do this to great effect as well. J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, comes to mind. Or do you mean something else altogether?
I wrote much of We The Animals in first-person plural, which I was well aware that many readers have an aversion to, though perhaps not quite as much an aversion as the second-person inspires. But the plurality seemed essential to the story I was trying to tell, a story about boyhood and brotherhood. I’ve had to talk a lot about the distinction between my own family and the family described in the book. Have you given thought to the fact that many readers will assume your first-person narrator is a stand-in persona for you, the author? Do you share similarities with Neill?
Scott Hutchins: This makes me think of Lynda Barry: “What is an imaginary friend? Are there also imaginary enemies?” I have many more imaginary enemies!
For me, writing in a character’s “voice” is not schizophrenia so much (I hope) as method acting. Or to use a better analogy — something more related to A Working Theory of Love — when I write in another character’s voice I’m trying to let their software run on my hardware. Which I think is possible in a profound way, maybe a transformative way, not just as writers but as readers. I think that’s what most of us are doing as readers — allowing another consciousness to take us over for a little while. I’m not sure why it’s so refreshing, but habitual readers (I consider myself one) drink it like the freshest water. I keep hearing the death of literature solemnly proclaimed, but this is why literature will never die. No other art replicates this intimate experience.
Does that sound more like something you’ve experienced? (I’ll be fascinated if it isn’t.)
Neill does still talk to me — a line or two here or there, which I write down. I’m working on a new book, so less so. But as you rightfully point out, there’s overlap between Neill and me. Which I guess brings me to your point on dimness. I was sort of joking, but essentially, yes, I was talking about that distance between the author’s perceptiveness and the character’s perceptiveness. Somewhere along the way that became my idea of Serious Literature. I don’t mean to spoof myself too much — I suspect the half-formed notion came from growing up Southern, and admiring the titans of Southern literature — Faulkner, O’Connor, Hurston — who make poetry of that distance. But it wasn’t something that worked for me — it was ultimately self-protective. Besides I really light up with writers more like Coetzee. Disgrace is so devilishly clever that we the readers can see the main character’s action in a different light, but I don’t think we can say for sure that the book sees those actions in a different light. Coetzee lets that contradiction just sit there, in a totally uncomfortable way. When I read his books I always want to know what he, Coetzee, really thinks! But that’s part of what he’s up to — he’s never going to give us the high-authorial point of view, even implicitly. I marvel at how he does this.
Like you, I am one of three brothers, and I think the “we” in We the Animals perfectly captures that kind of blending of identity that brothers can have when running in a pack. And the moment in your book when the “we” stops — and becomes “them” and “I” — is heartbreaking. Again, because of its penetrating accuracy. Certainly, I’ve considered the conflation of Neill and me — it’s something I play a lot with, though I don’t really know how to talk about it. Demographically, Neill and I are identical. We even look the same! But he’s a different character, who leads a different life. When events in his life coincide with events in my life, they usually have a different emotional cast — a happy event might be sad, or vice versa — and when he has a profound experience that is drawn from something I experienced it’s usually evoked with an entirely different event. Nothing is straight autobiography. But I do love the power that can come from working closer to the bone.
Which brings me back to you. You work really close to the bone. Is this a writerly strategy, or is it more personal? In other words, are you, Justin Torres Writer, reaching into your life for material that is hot with meaning, or are you, Justin Torres Person, using your writerly skill to explore questions in your life? Or do you even see this as a valid distinction?
Justin Torres: Thanks, Scott, for unpacking what you mean by a character ‘talking’ to you, as this is an oft-stated shorthand for an experience, or approach, that has always been so curious to me, and here you’ve explained it all so eloquently. Is this familiar to me, similar to my approach? No, I can’t say it is, but you’ve made the difference and perhaps my resistance to it, understandable.
Method acting is, I think, an intriguing and illustrative metaphor. While I know very little about acting techniques, my limited understanding is that method actors seek to identify with a character’s psychology, to work from the inside out, while a non-method approach to acting would be to practice and master a set of generic tools (diction, physical expression, etc.) and to create the illusion of deep and vast interiority in a character by getting the exterior right, delivering the lines precisely and portraying the scene accurately. A non-method actor (again, in my limited understanding) would be much better suited when it came time to take on parts beyond the lead in a modern-realist piece; to play a robot, for example, or a dog, or a 16th century jester, requires only the exact right combination of gestures, and not deep psychological identification. The ultimate goal is to maintain the illusion for the audience, to keep them in the story, to make them believe.
Applying this to fiction, I can see how “the method” or as you put it “the software” approach could work, especially for your main character (and indeed, in the case of your wonderful book, it more than worked), but what about the other characters you wrote? Did you use a similar approach?
I look at The Great Gatsby as a non-method book. Fitzgerald is a master of surfaces, postures, decoration, dialect, a solid eye for the way people hold themselves and move through the world, a pitch perfect ear for the way we use language, an attention to detail, but a grand authorial filter as well, he gives us just the exact amount of detail we need to understand and imagine the interior of characters, nothing more. He shows such restraint, such constraint, as he invokes interiority. This, for me, is a much more generative approach.
You’re absolutely right about Coetzee, and yes, it is an uncomfortable marvel. And I think Southern writers ‘making poetry of the distance’ is a beautiful way to put it. This is something I would like to do, something I try to do, make poetry of the distance between my characters self-perception and my authorial perception of them. You say this didn’t work, was ultimately self-protective, and here again, I have no idea what you mean by that, but I am so curious to know. Self-protective!
Sorry if it seems like I’m badgering you, but I suspect that here again is shorthand for something complicated and brilliant.
And you’re one of three brothers? Amazing. Where do you fall in the birth order? I am youngest, and as youngest I believe that birth order explains all.
Your last question is a big one, but I’ve already written quite a bit, so I’ll keep my answer short. I do not find writing from personal experience therapeutic, nor cathartic, no. I do write with questions in mind, and the questions are all at once personal, political, philosophical, and almost entirely unanswerable.
Scott Hutchins: My analogy may be breaking down under the weight of your analysis! My training as an actor ended my junior year in high school when I played Mr. Stephen Spettigue, the villain in Charley’s Aunt. One thing I can say about my performance is that it was completely free of method.
Some of this dynamic we’re talking about probably comes from the fact that We the Animals and A Working Theory of Love (as well as the terrifying comparison you’ve brought up, The Great Gatsby) are all first-person works. So there’s only one voice that needs to be captured, and the narrator in all these three books bears notable similarities to the author. The other characters are evoked, as you say, through observation and precise detail. That said, I do use a technique — and I’m interested to know if you’ve ever tried it — when a scene isn’t quite going right: I’ll write it from another character’s point of view. The writing is always horrible — leaden, the worst. But it can still be clarifying to me the writer, who needs the characters to function independently of the narrator. I need the narrator to describe the story, not appear to be making it up as he goes. Do you ever try anything like that?
Back to The Great Gatsby — I would agree that it’s a non-method book for all the characters except for Nick Carraway. More than just the right external detail, Carraway has to remember his father’s adages — he has to come from a moral universe that will allow him not just to describe East Egg, but to ultimately sit in judgment of it. And we have to sit there with him.
The question is what happens when the narrative voice gets a little further from the writer — maybe you’re Dickens and you’re going to write Bleak House from many different points of view, old, young, male, female. Or Russell Banks in The Sweet Hereafter. As soon as you engage the character as the teller of the story you have to work in that character’s voice — no? In Dickens, the sentences actually start to change — they take on the logic and the language of the character. When he gets very close you start to see something like stream of consciousness. Another good example is Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen — she’s only briefly in any point of view other than her main character, but there’s a tension between that main character’s voice and the voice of Elizabeth Bowen’s narrator. The book shuttles between the two — often in the space of a paragraph.
I have no idea what Bowen’s or Banks’s experience was like writing these books, but Dickens channelled the voices. He would run to the mirror and pull faces and put on accents. Those voices inhabited his brain. He talked about listening to them. I think of this as being a perfect example of a writer letting other software run on his natural-born hardware. He was no longer describing the characters from the outside — he was evoking their experience from the inside.
Which is not to say he erased himself in ego-less nirvana! Those characters still bear the marks of Dickens’s hand. Dickens is 100% present in every line on every page, even if he’s writing from the point of view of a child. He was not a self-protective writer — he threw himself in fiercely and wholly. And that’s what I wasn’t always doing with my narrators. Why? Seeking cover, I think. No one is going to assume that a story told by a dog is a thinly veiled autobiography. (Hopefully.) A story told by a character who appears much like you? Then, yes. And I’m totally guilty. When I read We the Animals, I thought, man, I can’t believe his dad left him out in the lake like that when he didn’t know how to swim! Then I found out that you made that up.
Does birth order explain everything? As a fellow youngest brother, I couldn’t agree with you more. My dad once said a funny thing to me on that. We were driving around on our little farm (we weren’t real farmers, but we did have cows), and he said, “You know, with that first child you pour in your dreams and your hopes and everything. With the others you’re just kind of waiting for them to leave the house.” I didn’t take this comment so well at the time! But what I think he meant was that as a parent he’d taken his foot off the gas. I had a latitude and freedom — and loneliness — that my brothers wouldn’t recognize.
One last note — I want to quiz you a little bit not just as a writer, but as a reader. When you think of a book that just blew you away — or completely transported you — what’s the experience of listening to that voice? I always feel it’s actually weaving itself into my mind — in some ways I’ll never be the same. Do you get that feeling?
Justin Torres: Scott, you are damn brilliant. Thank you for running with all my questions, and my bit of teasing about the voices, and just, well, schooling me. Seriously, I learned quite a lot in this exchange.
You know, if a passage isn’t working for me I can’t say that I try writing from another character’s point of view, I just try to hunker further down into the narration, or into the details of the scene. You say you want the characters to function independently of the narrator, but for me, oddly enough, I had no such intentions. My book is retrospectively narrated, it is in many ways a book about memory, and as such the characters cannot function independently of the narrator. This was part of the allure of first-person plural, to keep the focus on the narrator’s conception of brotherhood, another way to fold the characters into the narrator.
I think the reason we differ so in our writing approaches is because we differed in our ambitions. In writing We the Animals, my ambitions were smaller than yours. And I don’t say that in self-deprecating way, I mean that literally. I wanted to see how much I could exclude, how much I could reduce; I wanted the book to feel a little claustrophobic. I wanted the intensity of concentration. My parents used to buy canisters of frozen orange juice concentrate in bulk and my brothers and I would sometimes spoon the orange stuff into our mouths like ice-cream, not because it was delicious, it wasn’t, but because it was intense.
But of course your methods, your approaches, make a lot of sense for the book you wrote. A Working Theory of Love, is a big, brainy book that manages to be both idea-driven and character-driven. The book is clever, funny, and heartfelt, and you’ve managed to achieve just exactly what you describe, the characters in your book do “function independently of the narrator.” And you manage to write about the larger world, this digital age, about the extent to which we attempt to humanize technology, or the extent to which our human selves are melding with technology. The story lines in your book, the love-lines, the idea-lines, all ping off another and inform each other. Yours is a big book, ambitious in all that it includes.
And I think I can answer your final question and manage to weave in yet another compliment at the same time. You asked about my experience reading books with powerful voices, listening to those voices. I think I feel seduced, utterly seduced, the way I sometimes feel talking to someone in a bar, or in bed, or when a friend comes by unexpectedly, broken and weeping, like I just want to give myself fully to that voice, I want to be audience for their joy, or lust, or lies, or hurt. I want them to talk, to go on and on and carry me away. Of course the real life conversations we have are so fleeting, so intangible, but a good book with pitch-perfect voice, like yours, can always be returned to, a long one-way conversation, a seduction, trapped and kept in a bottle.
Here’s to your first book, Scott! Thanks for talking to me, man.
Scott Hutchins: A spoonful of orange concentrate — I know that flavor, and it really does capture (in the best way) the experience of reading We the Animals. Intense, and pleasurable in its intensity. What a haunting book.
Thanks for the sharp thoughts here, Justin. I’ll never mention method acting again!
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.