Thursday, December 17, 2009

Permeability and the writer


I'm back into writing my new novel, after some time away. Much of that time has been given to reading the work of Hilary Mantel. At the post-event dinner with her the other evening, someone asked if her novels would be influencing my own.
'I doubt it,' Hilary offered while I paused. 'I expect your writing is quite fixed.'
'I don't know. I'm pretty permeable,' I admitted in the end. Hilary, for herself, said she wasn't.
One aspect of 'Hilary Mantel' that may have stuck with me is her technique of beginning her sentences with something other than the subject of the sentence - in her case, quite often a time phrase. I've noticed that such avoidance of the standard 'Subject+verb+object' sentence order really helps to sustain narrative drive. I've used Hilary's work, especially her nonfiction pieces in the London Review of Books, to illustrate this to students. She was amused to hear it, had not been consious of the technique herself, and thought it would be amusing to be a 'fly on the wall' of such lessons.
That's a stylistic trick. I do find her ways with images, the appropriation of perfect details, her descriptions of characters, all set a benchmark I'm happy to reach toward.
My permeability stretches further though. When I'm writing, anything I encounter is likely to filter into my work somehow. As I study Zen philosophy, the thoughts I encounter are filtering into the mind of my holocaust survivor. I've just finished reading Francis King's A Domestic Animal, in which a character firmly based on the author scrutinizes his own responses and actions in a bracingly clear-eyed and unsentimental way. As my own novel resumed, it found a new narrative spur, the main character taking on some of the same searing introspection as the Francis King character.
I like this permeability in the writing process, this sense that the writing and the life are the same.

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