Whose Voice Is It?
I’m fascinated by the power of voice in fiction. How it draws you in and brands a novel. Think of Alix Hawley’s All True, Not A Lie In It. You wouldn’t mistake the voice she creates for her fictional Daniel Boone for Junot Diaz’s narrator in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Hawley isn’t a frontiersman living in 1700s America. So how did she make herself sound like one? Through word choice, syntax, perspective and great imagination, I’d say. Her own voice didn’t disappear when she wrote All True. It got filtered through Boone’s experiences, much as an actor’s personality is filtered through the script for the character she’s playing. I don’t consider myself in Hawley’s league but I enjoy pretending I’m an actor when I write, imagining how my characters view the world and what they sound like.
To write the novel Stony River, I imagined myself to be twelve-year-old Linda Wise, thirteen-year-old Tereza Dobra and fifteen-year old Miranda Haggerty in a small New Jersey town in the 1950s.
Linda’s voice came out repressed, naïve, idealistic, even a bit self-righteous. (The Platters sounded like black butter, an observation she’d never share aloud lest anyone think she was prejudiced which she absolutely was not. For goodness sake, she’d even begged for and gotten the colored baby doll advertised on Amos and Andy when she was little.)
The dyslexic, profane and sexually precocious Tereza released my inner bad girl. (“Asshole,” she said, slapping Richie’s hand away, but she wasn’t cheesed off at him. Vlad either. Talking dirty was their way of showing they liked her. She only ever let them stick their tongues in her mouth and flash their dicks at her. Guys were so impressed with their dicks.)
I imagined Miranda speaking in the vernacular of her Irish-born father James whose death kicks off the novel. He has hidden her from others since she was three for fear she’d be taken from him because of his paganism. Her knowledge of the world is limited to what he’s told her and what she’s read in the books he allowed her. (When she’s eighteen, James won’t have to bring her lilacs each spring. She’ll seek them where they grow and drown her nose in their drunken scent. She will climb Merlin’s oak tree and Heidi’s mountain, row a boat down an enchanted river, tread on hot sand and sing as boldly as she wants without worrying someone will hear.)
When I chose Linda to follow in my newest novel, Becoming Lin, I had to consider how her perspective would’ve changed in the three years between the end of the first novel and the beginning of the second and how it might change over the eight years the novel covers. The novel plays with time, the way memory does, yet I needed to experience Linda’s changes chronologically myself to be sure I got her voice right before I could present any moments out of sequence. She’s nearly twenty-two when Becoming Lin opens on a Sunday in church and it’s clear events have tested her faith. (Hard to believe she once wanted to carry Christ’s love to mystical Africa, like those Bible thumpers Sam and Tootie Burns who brought back slides of half-naked women and children with swollen bellies along with tales about black mamba snakes, scorpions bigger than your hand and ants that could devour a live cow in under an hour. They blazed with the fervor she yearned for back when she believed God would touch her life with magic if only she were devout enough. Back before she questioned crediting God with the joys while giving him a pass for the sorrows.)
Over the course of the novel she awakens to profound moral issues of her time and begins to carve out her place in a society in transition. Her inner conflicts mirror the external conflicts charging the air around her: the Vietnam War, the push for human rights and the unraveling of the traditional marriage contract. Realizing her voice needed to evolve to reflect all of that was a giant leap for me as a writer—a lesson I hope to take into the writing of my next book when I pretend to be an accidental murderer.
Tricia Dower won first prize for creative nonfiction in subTerrain magazine’s 2015 Lush Triumphant Awards. Her story collection, Silent Girl (Inanna 2008), was nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. Her first novel, Stony River (Penguin Canada 2012), was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction. Upon the publication of Becoming Lin (Caitlin 2016) the Vancouver Sun wrote, “Some of the most powerful and eloquent Canadian novelists of the 20th and 21st centuries…including Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Ethel Wilson...open up what had been cloaked in silence, the oppression of women and their self-discoveries in resistance. We can now add to this important liberation canon the name of Tricia Dower.” A dual citizen of Canada and the US, Tricia lives in Brentwood Bay, BC.