Monday, October 18, 2010

John McNally on voice

John McNally, author of The Creative Writer's Survival Guide and After the Workshop, was on the show in October (linky here).

Here's more conversation with John, primarily about voice. Read on:

Style and voice. What does it mean to you?

Worldview. If you think about the style and voice of Twain¹s Huckleberry Finn, it¹s intrinsically linked to the narrator¹s (and author¹s) worldview,which is what separates memorable fiction from fiction that¹s forgettable.

Do you think in writing fiction, plot is the most important thing?
Style? Voice? What's most important, do you think?

Character and worldview. The characters have to be strong and
three-dimensional, but they also have to have a fiercely original way of seeing the world. By that, I don¹t mean quirky or odd. Again, think of Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. Take away their worldview, and what do you have?

So if character and worldview are most important, then are you saying voice is what emerges from these two aspects?

Voice is a byproduct of character and worldview, yes. When I think of one of my favorite writers, a writer like Charles Portis, the way his characters see the world is what makes Charles Portis novels Charles Portis novels as opposed to, say, Margaret Atwood novels, which have their own distinct worldviews. But in a Charles Portis novel, when you mix his characters with their worldviews, you often get an absurd, deadpan comic voice. In The Dog of the South, for instance, the narrator says of another character, “He had sold wide shoes by mail, shoes that must have been almost round, at widths up to EEEEEE.” That’s this character’s view of the world: absurd. And it’s hilarious because it’s delivered flatly, in sentence after sentence, as though it’s not absurd. It’s worldview that hooks me into a novel, and it’s why I prefer Portis to Philip Roth. Roth is a great writer, but I prefer the way Portis’s characters see the world.

Do you spend a lot of time sketching out character, and that
character's worldview? Please say more about worldview as I've never heard anyone talk about voice the way you do.

I don’t sketch out characters at all, and I don’t think about worldview when I write. I think worldview is part of the writer’s DNA, even though it’s filtered through a character. Huck’s worldview is Twain’s worldview. The point of view narrators in a Richard Russo novel share Russo’s worldview. I don’t mean to say that the author agrees with everything a narrator does or how he or she behaves. Certainly, Humbert Humbert isn’t Nabokov. But I would say that they probably share certain sensibilities, and Humbert’s love of language and loving attention to detail are Nabokov’s, and how might somebody characterize the voice of the novel? Language that reads like music!


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