Last week, I had the pleasure of reading Chloe Banks‘s debut novel The Art of Letting Go, and I was amazed with the ease she wrote from multiple view points. (Four! Can you believe it? Four!). It’s a seamless transition to each view point, and each character is unique, varying in personalities, age, tone and perspective. Over the years, many wrinkles have appeared on my forehead because of the elusive term “voice”, so I invited Chloe over today as part of her blog tour to talk about how she achieved such a mammoth task.
The Art of Letting Go is about a retired physicist, Rosemary Blunt, who has a secret. Her past has come back to haunt her and he’s lying comatose in a hospital only a few miles away. Should she let him live, or let him go? In the midst of her secret dilemma she meets an abstract artist who manipulates the world onto canvas to make people see things differently. But what else is he manipulating? And will their bizarre friendship ruin them both?
Chloe Banks: Outside the Box and Other Structures
In a recent interview I was asked what was the hardest part of writing The Art of Letting Go. Easy question! Answer: getting the voice right. When I wrote the first draft I did the classic thing of using one point of view written in the third-person. It’s the most common way to write a novel certainly, but in this case, it seemed to leave the narrative flat.
In the next draft I tried writing the book from multiple first-person viewpoints – allowing each significant character to tell their part of the story. As soon as I started, I knew this was the right thing to do. In a book that revolves around secrets and lies, telling the story through multiple viewpoints allowed the reader to spot the inconsistencies for themselves. Right, it might have been; Easy, it was not! Each voice in my novel not only had to be believable, but also had to have the makings of being unbelievable. To a greater or lesser extent they all had to be unreliable narrators – believable as real people, but not necessarily trustworthy as eyewitnesses.
I’m not the first person to use an unusual voice or structure to tell a story. Perhaps one of the most infamously experimental books has to be Ulysses by James Joyce. Notoriously difficult to read, Ulysses is written in 18 “episodes” – each one in a different style. One episode is in the form of a script, another as a kind of parody of the popular romantic novels of his time. When I waded my way through this epic book, I enjoyed some of the episodes, but the biggest surprise was the final part. Molly’s Soliloquy is a 40-page stream of consciousness, with only two pieces of punctuation in the whole thing (no, not even apostrophes). I was dreading reading it, and yet it was probably my favourite part. It is wildly experimental and it works perfectly.
If you fancy something a bit easier on the brain than Ulysses, but still experimental, I’d recommend Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. I don’t have time to do the plot justice here, but it is written in the form of letters between the characters and, as the book progresses, the amount of the alphabet available to use in those letters decreases, requiring inventive use of both spelling and vocabulary to get a point across. It’s fun and charming and a must-read for any lover of words. Or you could try the award-winning 253 by Geoff Ryman. Each of the 253 chapters tells the story of one person on a tube train heading towards a crash, and is fantastically written, with interactions between the characters but no set reading order.
When you see the ingenuity of books such as these, writing a novel from four different viewpoints (and in two different tenses) seems pretty tame. Even so, I tried to chicken out and write it more simply at the last moment, convinced I wasn’t a good enough writer to pull it off. My agent – God bless him for it – wouldn’t let me. So perhaps the lesson here is not only to experiment with structure and voice when something doesn’t feel right, but also to surround yourself with people who will make you stick to your ambitious, foolhardy schemes when quitting is the easy but not the right option.
I’d love to know if you’ve read any books with unusual voices or structure. I’m always on the hunt for more books to add to my must-read list! So let me know, what are your best, quirky discoveries?
The Art of Letting Go is available as a paperback and an e-book here.