I read a lot. It’s what I do, read and write. I don’t know any other writers personally but when interviewed, most writers seem to read a lot. You have to. It’s not that you are attempting to nick other writers ideas but other people have different, sometimes better ways of expressing things. Just the basic decisions about structure for example and whether to speak in first or third person are arrived at by what works well for others.
One of my all-time favourite novels is American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. The Guardian called it the best book of the 21st century and I wouldn’t actually disagree with that. It was from that book I decided I would write both Riccarton Junction and Train That Carried the Girl in first person narrative and in linear form. No jumping about; no bringing dramatic scenes forward with which to engage the average jaded reader. This happened and then this happened, then that happened. The end. American Wife is both linear and in first person and from the millions of other possibilities, that was how I decided to tell Kiri’s story.
As a rule, I prefer current literary fiction set in the present and ideally set in contemporary England [or rarely, Scotland]. Never Ireland. I am not anti-American but tend to give current genre American fiction a miss. I will read Australian fiction, Tim Winton is a favourite; great, great writer.
I have just finished reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a young Australian author. It is currently [June 2014] in the Amazon Top ten so anyone reading this will almost certainly know what it is about, even if they haven’t yet read it. I loved it. Very, very briefly it is about the murder in Iceland in 1827 of two men and the subsequent trial of the two women and one man accused of their murder. One of the women, Agnes, is held for about a year in the isolated home of the District Officer while she is awaiting confirmation of execution for the crime. Agnes’ story is still well-known in Iceland and has been the subject of several books and at least one film.
So the novel is about the tensions in the relationships between the family, the wife, two daughters and a couple of servants and the woman believed to be a double-murderer.
Hannah Kent knows her facts inside out. She spent six months in Iceland researching and then returned for three more months, when she had her first draft. She cleverly switches the narrative voice from Agnes in first-person to the other characters in third person so you get what everyone is thinking contrasted with what Agnes says actually occurred.
The book is full of convincing historical detail, the blood sausage scene for example which is one of many authentic sounding passages that must have taken weeks of research but occupy hardly a paragraph. In fact I think that particular scene is only there to show [not tell!] Agnes’ power within the household. The prose, plotting, historical detail and characterisation are all spot on, in my view. It is an ambitious book; part crime fiction with a did-she-do- it or was-she-framed narrative arc. Part historical fiction; the unbelievably hard and impecunious life that Agnes led in a land where it is dark and freezing for half the year and part social realism, particularly in the sections dealing with the effect she has on the family and the community. Personally, I think Hannah Kent controls it all pretty well although some literary critics disagree.
My own books, Riccarton and Train are similar in that there is more than one narrative arc in play. With Riccarton it is the Keith/crime arc; the archaeology arc entwined with the occult mysticism of Roddy; the passion for Chris arc contrasted with the lack of passion for Sacha and finally, her parents arc and the interior stresses of the marriage. Too many threads? Maybe, but I don’t honestly think that I lose control over them. But that’s for others to decide.
As I say, I think Hannah Kent maintains control over her material. The style is assured. That may come in part from the fact that Burial Rites is based upon a true story and real characters, although I suspect that brings its own problems for a writer. Her range has been criticised and it is true that she has a limited handful of rhetorical devices for expressing Agnes’ interior thoughts; passages where she has no historical texts to guide her because they are Agnes musings to herself. In a rather poor section very near the end, she seems to have exhausted her repertoire of similes for expressing horror.
Overall however I loved it. I loved the little twist at the end . . . seriously great writing . . . in respect of the fire.
The best review I have read is that by Steven Heighton in the New York Times. It quite short, only 700 words and you can read it here.