‘When the attention has revealed the contradiction in something on which it has been fixed, a kind of loosening takes place.’
– Simone Weil
The best weaponry I have against demonising or exalting my characters is to portray them without judgement, and to follow their movements rather than charting a course for them. This means I rarely know who I am writing about at the outset. In the case of the short story ‘A Woman of No Information’ published in Granta, I didn’t even know which character the story would navigate towards; the story’s writing process almost embodied the movement of the story itself, from the director making his tentative casting, to the actress literally stepping into his clothes. For me, writing is an act of listening and following. Occasionally, stalking. Occasionally following with your hands over your ears, for fear of what you’ll hear.
Both as a reader and writer, I’ve learned it’s a good sign if a story or novel reveals me to have been a poor judge of character (which I am, on and off the page! This is very useful as a writer, but it’s embarrassing and sometimes dangerous as a person). I like to feel contradicted and conflicted by characters. (Being duped, not so much.) If my reading of a character changes late in the day, or after the fact, that might not be because the initial reading was invalid: contradictory aspects of a character can be simultaneously accurate and true, or bloody convincing! Just ask a family member to describe another family member. Then ask a family friend. Perhaps we crave behavioural coherency in fiction as a reaction against real people being so contradictory and hypocritical and unprincipled, or life itself being so unpredictable.
I generally have sympathy and affection for all my characters. I try not to distance myself from them as I discover their fallibility, fragility, failings and fungal conditions. If or when a character falls from grace, then the story must have defined grace. I’m more interested in interrogating that definition than I am in punishing the character via the narrative, or questioning the character’s worthiness for attention in the novel in the first place. I will never write heroes, partly because they are superabundant in literature. The protagonist of my first novel, Orchid & the Wasp, conflicted me deeply (as a reader and writer.) Responding to her family’s rapid downward mobility, she exposes neoliberalism’s rulebook, which ensures success for privileged people if they protect their privilege and cultivate moral adaptability. She uses other people’s lives as investigative equipment and she makes many nefarious choices as the cynicism that she’s evincing seeps into her – but so too does she use other people’s vulnerabilities as a reason to fight. She is becoming deeply disillusioned, coming to fear that the possibility of living a good life is a form of self-delusion. She comes to loathe her own capacity for success within such a warped, bigoted system, and playing the rigged game means repudiating aspects of herself, and denying love (too, from the reader). That she’s twenty-one when the story ends is part of the novel’s hope. It isn’t a flattering portrait of a person or of a society, but her most narcissistic ‘thoughts’ belong to a tight script she’s written, which she’s performing with the dripping face paint of a dark clown. Within the narrative scope, she isn’t ready to make the right choices and to pay the price . . . and it is weird to see a narcissist experience self-disgust. I hope that this internal conflict carries over to the reader – albeit as a different variety of conflict. To my eye, where there are contradictions, there is realism. I think it’s possible for a story – the treatment of characters, relationships, places and societies – to be tender and eviscerating at once. Some of my favourite novels achieve just this, from John McGahern’s The Pornographer to Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth to Anne Enright’s The Gathering to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.
My second novel, The Wild Laughter, is the only first-person narrative I’ve ever written, and its narrator exerted a peculiar control over his own exposure. I was simultaneously inside Doharty Black’s head and outside of it, like a newscaster nervously pronouncing the state of affairs and hearing them through her earpiece a split second later. Self-described as a ‘heavy-going soul’ who ‘has the emotions of every girl in the County Roscommon over a barrel’, Doharty (Hart) lives with his parents, working their bankrupt farm, in the wrack and ruin of post-crash Ireland. Having grown up in rural Ireland, I was writing from a place of familiarity, but physically I wrote the first draft in New Zealand. (It had been a decade since I’d lived in the Republic of Ireland. I’d studied theatre in Northern Ireland before moving hemispheres.) Because his voice came to me from a land far away, he made me lean in to hear it. As the writer, I couldn’t help but hear something of the stage Irishman in the timbre and tragic grandeur of Hart’s monologue; I couldn’t help but imagine a Sean O’Casey set constructed around him, like so many planks of a national saga; ever a family saga. That is to say, I had to get closer to get past the many characters who had told similarly melancholic tales, charged with saudade. Since a fierce resistance of stereotype seemed to be part of his conviction, it was my duty to him. ‘How easy us muck savages were to grasp,’ Hart warned me. ‘How basic our motives. It was an old sentimental story that went down like trifle: the struggle for selfhood, exorcising the individual from the mass; the inexpert misunderstood miserable myth-drunk countrymen, versed in obsolete statistics, stuck in de Valera’s era, privately yearning for intimacy, reflexology and office jobs with casual Fridays. Also yearning for the story – however tired – to deserve telling.’ Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t make a sound judgement on what deserved telling: I could either write it and find out, or not. So I turned the volume down on my surroundings and my impressions to better hear his voice, its tone. It took eight years to hear it clearly. And in committing words to the page, I only discovered in the last three pages who Doharty was, and therefore who all the people around him were. I wrote the last three pages in one go, standing up, devastated. It was a shock, because I write into the dark, without a plan . . . but then again, it had been there all along. Those pages threw into relief the rest of the book, and when I walked backwards through its pages, I saw the necessity of what I had believed and how. I saw my fears and fixations, as well as his – we were out of true, on the same page. I felt a loosening.
Photograph © Mike Steinhoff