Friday, 17 May 2013

Structure, structure, structure...

I've been reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Picador, 2010).  I knew about tissue culture and HeLa cells from my studies, so I skimmed through the beginning . The story took off for me once we reached the time when Deborah and Rebecca are researching the past together, the description of the difficulties arising from their own limitations and anxieties, and the way they resolved them. It carries the tone of truth-telling which makes the story speak to you from the page. Rivetting.

What impressed me most about this book is how painstaking Rebecca Skloot has been - careful to do justice to everyone who has contributed, the utmost care! This book has the longest list of acknowledgements that I have ever seen: it is a chapter in its own right, and it is well written too, I read it with great interest and a steadily increasing respect for the author. There is a proper index, a must for a book in this genre, but still, not everyone takes the trouble.There are the Notes, which provide the sources for each chapter. And the years in which the story takes place are written in a little stream at the head of each chapter with an arrow pointing to the relevant period .Very meticulous (unnecessary, to my mind, I read the book without any difficulty re the chronology and only noticed this feature later on.) There is also an Afterword which fills us in on the latest developments.

And yet it has not prevented the attacks: I read one vicious review which said that there was far too much of her in the book...Because she did the work without which no one would know what happened, the course of that work is the story, the story of how she managed to convince Deborah and the family to trust her, at some emotional cost to herself. Not an easy path, requiring great perseverance. She has done a good job of it, with considerable integrity.

This book brought me an unexpected gift: it has put me in touch with theory about structure. I have been worried about the structure of my book for some time and when I looked at Rebecca's website, I found that she said this about structure in an interview for the nieman storyboard:

" I knew that the structure was going to have to be complicated, and I’m just very into structure. I think structure is one of the most important tools a writer has. When I teach, my students get so sick of me harping on structure, structure, structure. I read and dissect a lot of things. I teach John McPhee’s stuff because he uses these very complicated structures you can pull apart. Structure is all about making the story more rich."

Here's a photo of the way she sorted out the structure: three interwoven stories, three colours.  I was touched by this photo because I recognised it:  I have done the same thing on our large dining table for my book, using colours for the four different interwoven stories and I did that because the structure was wrong and I was stuck. I recently found a way getting around some of the difficulties, involving, you guessed it, flashbacks. The issue now is - how to place them judiciously.

So on to "John McPhee's stuff".  Here is a quote from the first article I found about him:
“...The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected..."
The method is indicated for non-fiction writing, and mine is a mix of fiction and non-fiction - knowing more can only help! Some people advising me are writers of fiction, and they do not feel the same way about sticking to the facts when dealing with historical events. I have been told: "Readers will forgive you!"  I don't want to have to be forgiven....

I also would like to mention that I have been encouraged to read how long it took Rebecca to write this book. Not that anything is likely to stop me at this stage.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Heaven and Hell

The Cove (Canongate, 2012) was written by Ron Rash, a well-known Appalachian American. It is a superbly written story - thrilling, though a little unbelievable, almost a fairy tale, a Grimm fairy tale; yet one finishes the book with a feeling of lightness. The mute man's secret dawns on you gradually, you form your own theory about him and find out the truth at the end, which is also a beginning for one person. The heroine is a kind of saint and would be insipid except that we see her develop and gain the strength to hold up a mirror to her tormentors. She walks home with a difficult decision to make and pauses at a cross-roads to think. We know that this spot is dangerous -  a wild boar is around whom someone called Jehosaphat....The pigs on the farm are also portrayed as evil, there is an unspoken idea that they might be man-eating. The good is represented in the flock of beautiful singing birds which is shot down...

Heaven and hell are present right through the book, whether in the experiences people have to go through - war wounds, dreadful isolation in a dark house, digging at the bottom of a well (some of the best writing here), being wonderfully in love - or on board a great ship where heaven and hell are represented in a kind of festival.

At the end of an early chapter, the final sentence glows unexpectedly: "The word was not there." A Biblical intonation: no God. The uprooting of a great tree releases a ball of writhing snakes, a vision from hell. And towards the end, a man hides in the forest, and sees a stag with great antlers, which he thinks at first might be an hallucination. There has been no previous mention of stags - so is the stag a representation of Christ, I wonder...It fits, like a complex jigsaw puzzle.

Almost every page contains a word which is not common usage, understandable from the context. Most can be found in the dictionary and a couple are identified as 'American idiom'. The use of strange words and strange sentence constructions gives one the feeling of peering into a different world. Wikipedia lists Appalachian English as a dialect - not written much. Being fluent in another language than English may be an advantage for a writer: they can borrow metaphors which may be as telling in translation as in the original. and the knowledge of a different grammar and syntax enables the use of English in new ways - they know how the sentence works elsewhere.

I am always interested in the names authors choose for their characters, and discovered that those in this book bear genuine Appalachian names, including the villain, Chauncey. (I'd never come across a Chauncey before). The little town of Mars Hill exists in real life, as does its college. The narrative takes place about a century ago, after the First World War, which places the story safely beyond living memory. I wonder what the locals make of the way their town is portrayed.

 Thank you, Ron Rash. A great book.