I’ve been thinking about fine lines recently. The all too real and, sometimes, fraction-of-a-moment lines between sorrow and laughter, truth and untruth, honour or dishonour. This, in relation to the new novel I’m writing that will be published in the fall of 2014 (but has been promised to my Cdn. & U.S. publishers fall/2013).
Consider, for instance, the fine lines between people who have different points of honour. Consider truths that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Who is doing the perceiving, the seeing, the telling? Truths are muddied by partial information, by emotional withholding, by obstinacy, by unexpected revelations.
I especially like to work with fine lines between sorrow and laughter. I love to read writing that can make me laugh out loud and yet bring me to tears within the breath of a single page. I say ‘breath’ because that’s what good fiction does – breathes life. That old harpy, life, raises her head in a myriad of ways. Look at some of the fiction written by Jane Gardam – her novels, Old Filth and Faith Fox, for instance. These are replete with a melee of characters, with love, laughter and sorrow, with fits of pique and indignation. Her writing is alive with insight into the complexities of human behaviour. Pain, joy and bewilderment are finely tuned in her sentences; emotions can be felt viscerally by the reader. Not easy to accomplish. By far, not easy for a writer.
I’d like to think that, as writers, we are not afraid to encompass any aspect of the human condition. We make demands on ourselves. We tackle whatever is called for by our theme and our story. And yet, in the writing, we pull back far enough to allow our readers room to share the experience. We have to get out of the way. Again, this is not easy. We try to be immediate in our creations, spill out the concrete imagery, and then stand back and allow the reader to rush in, to participate, to supply his or her emotions to the scenes.
One of the ways of working at this is, of course, by rewriting. Reworking every sentence. Reading aloud dozens of times. Hundreds, if necessary. Changing the beat. Adding a beat when one is not expected. Pulling back, farther and farther. Making the work more concrete. Leaving room for the reader to stride in and take hold of our story as if it’s one s/he is experiencing rather than one held at arms’ length. I don’t want to keep my readers somewhere off in the distance, looking in from outside. Our readers are our willing partners. The ones who agree to bring their own intellect and emotions to the page. The ones who agree to come along for the journey. I receive many letters from readers and I’m always thrilled when they write: “I laughed out loud.” “I was okay until I came to a [particular] scene and then I lost it.” “I couldn’t keep from crying.” “The character in this book is so real to me; I feel she goes on living, even after I’ve closed the covers.”
Yes, that’s what I want. The fine lines over which we tip forward and back. Readers who are willing to tip forward and back with our fictional characters. Participation. Eagerness to see what happens next. Laughter and tears. A sign that the fragile gift we own as writers is shared as fully as possible through our work.
Frances Itani, C.M., is the author of 14 books: novels, poetry, short
stories & children’s books. She has a B.A. in Psychology and English and
an M.A. in English Literature. Her novel Deafening won a Commonwealth
Writers Prize,was translated in 17 countries & was shortlisted for the
International IMPAC Dublin Award. Her bestselling novel Remembering the
Bones was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Prize and was published
internationally. Itani is a three-time winner of the CBC Literary Award;
her stories have won two Ottawa Book Awards and the 2005 CAA Jubilee Award.
Itani reviews for The Washington Post & has written for The Globe and
Mail, The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Saturday Night, The Ottawa
Citizen, etc. She is on the Advisory Board for Youth in Motion's 'Top 20
Under 20.' Her latest novel, REQUIEM (2011), tells the story of a
Japanese Canadian visual artist who revisits his past -- the uprooting
of his family from Canada's west coast during WWII. REQUIEM will be
published in the U.S. in 2012 (Grove/Atlantic) as well as in Germany &