Garden Varieties

October 18, 2010 at 8:51 am (Uncategorized)

If I could only muster the energy, and stop my head lolling loosely on my neck long enough to focus on the screen, I’d quite like to make some progress on the MS redrafting. There’s a lot of work that needs doing, and the elves are evidently on strike.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink is the novel’s use of Sydney, and it’s something I think I could and should make more of in my own writing. McGregor’s novel puts Sydney’s climate and flora to work, and beyond their metaphorical value, both succeed in really creating atmosphere, shifting the mood of the story in careful partnership with the unfolding narrative arc.

Using a city’s dramatic weather patterns as a narrative-vane is not a new thing, and nature of course features in a great many texts, but I became aware while reading Indelible Ink that Sydney is not yet the character she could be in my own manuscript. I know this city, and I love her, and yet thus far I haven’t given her proper due. It’s something I plan to address, and it’s also why I chose Delia Falconer’s non-fiction Sydney as part of my Babymoon Book Haul. I was very interested to read not only another Sydney writer’s perspective on the city, but also in the difference between Falconer’s personal exploration of it and McGregor’s fictional one. I suppose, then, I am, however indirectly, starting to do the work that needs to be done, but I fear it’s still a long road ahead.

When I opened up the MS last week, I impulsively did something quite radical, rewriting the first chapter in third person (until now it’s always been a first person narrative). I haven’t yet decided how I feel about the change. I’ve since left that rewritten first chapter alone in a separate document on my desktop, but I’ve certainly thought about doing it many times in the past couple of years, discussing the possibility at various points with various people, and when I came back to it this time after such a substantial break, it seemed at the very least to be an experiment worth trying. I wonder how I’ll feel about it when I read over it? Perhaps – and this is one of the possible outcomes that most appeals to me – the distance produced by this shift in narrative perspective will construct a sufficient detachment for me to see the MS anew. Even if I ultimately return the perspective to first person, it seems valuable to use the third person alternative now to help me step back and conduct the necessary critical reappraisal of all that I find. But I do have another problem to overcome either way, and that’s plain old exhaustion, so I fear it’ll be slow going whatever I decide.

In other book news, I finished Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) last week. Jackson’s name kept cropping up in recent months, as sometimes happens, so that when I spied this in the Penguin Paperback section of Berkelouw Books in Mona Vale, I pounced. The Library of America recently honoured Jackson by releasing a volume of her work (edited by Joyce Carol Oates, who seems the most perfect choice imaginable now I’ve read a piece), and it’s this recognition of Jackson’s significant contribution to American letters that’s responsible for my at least hearing about her for the first time. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a fabulous, unnerving example of mid-nineteenth century American gothic; it’s a genuinely creepy novel that had me shivering with that perfect reader’s mix of horrified delight. The elements and the environment also feature here, but it’s Jackson’s use of food that particularly interests me. I think we’ve become so used to the sensualisation of food in writing that, for me at least, it made a wonderful change to have it become the source of the dark and sinister instead of the erotic and fecund. Her 18-year old first person narrator, Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood, is a complex creature one both likes and fears, and the spiteful cruelty of the small town is rendered with acidic acuity. I was hooked.

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6 Comments

  1. charlotteotter said,

    Bringing a place to life is quite hard though, isn’t it? I have been told to ‘add more scenery’ in my revisions and I’m finding the process quite difficult. Partly because it’s part of me, like a hand or something, so I find it quite hard to separate myself from the place and see it as a stranger would or might, if I actually got it together.

    • doctordi said,

      Yeah, I’d agree with that, Charlotte. I think there’s a risk too of such deliberate referencing becoming quite self-conscious, so I’ll be interested to see if it goes well or really, really badly!

  2. Lilian Nattel said,

    I think it would be an interesting exercise to read a bunch of authors’ depictions of the same city, especially if it’s a city that isn’t the locale for a million novels! For what it’s worth, I like 3rd person. It’s so flexible. It can be distant or zoom right into someone’s perspective.

    • doctordi said,

      Mmm, it *is* interesting, Lilian, I’m always intrigued by written portraits of Sydney – or really any portrait – but this is the first time I’ve actively sought them out. Falconer refers to Patrick White’s Vivisector as a great novel of place, which is coincidental since it was the work I most liked the sound of while reading his letters. The Sydney aspect has decided the matter, although I still have my mother-in-law’s copy of The Eye of the Storm on hand…

  3. litlove said,

    Invisible Ink sounds really intriguing, and I’ve had that Shirley Jackson novel awaiting me and looking tempting for a while now… really must get to it. I’ve also got a biography of Jackson to read who suffered severe mental problems, and yet managed to turn out the funniest memoirs of bringing up children I have ever read (Life Among the Savages was one, can’t recall the title of the other). I’d like to know how that works!

    • doctordi said,

      Oh, definitely get stuck into the Jackson, LL – I wondered if you’d read it. It’s really only novella-ish, anyway, so you’ll power through it in no time. Fantastic – I am going to get Life Among the Savages now, thanks for the tip!

      Indelible Ink took me ages to read… I found it a bit of a slog. The writing is extremely good, which is why I persisted, but I never really managed to bond with the story in general and the characters in particular.

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