One of the questions I suggest asking your novel is "Who is telling this story?" And the next is, "Where are they standing, relative to the events they're telling?". So I was excited to discover that Jenn Ashworth was building her new novel, Fell, on one of the most interesting - and fruitful - answers to that question that I've yet come across. I was lucky enough, a while back, to have a tiny role in her working-out of the considerable writerly challenges it posed, and when I read the book a few weeks ago I just loved it (its predecessor, The Friday Gospels, is also a cracker). So I'm extra-pleased, as well as grateful, that she's agreed to come on the blog today, and talk about it in more detail. Fell is brand new out there, and has got fantastic reviews: for more about Jenn and the book, click here, or click through to buy it online from Hive, from Waterstones, or from Amazon
MAKING THE RULES: PHYSICS AND FELL, by Jenn Ashworth
I tell my students that the decisions they make on point of view, time and structure shouldn’t respond to an arbitrary set of rules but should serve their theme, honour the characters and invite the reader to get closer to whatever it is they want to show them. Designing the laws of motion for the book should be as creative and imaginative as developing the characters that act in it. Like so much about the teaching of creative writing, this is easy to say and harder to do.
Fell is about transformation – the murky transformation that happens daily as the tide moves over the mudflats and saltmarshes of Morecambe Bay. It is about the physical transformation that happens to a person’s body as a result of serious, long-term illness, and the relational and social transformation that happens while a person is dying and after they have gone. Every single boundary in the novel – between parent and child, the sick person and the healer, between kindness and self-interest, the land and the sea, between the present and the past – needed to be slippery, unstable and porous. I can’t just tell the reader all this, I needed to design a structure and deploy narrative technique in order to demonstrate it.
My process is based more on trial and error than I’d like, but I think better while I am doing and I learn best of all from failure. Two drafts taught me that first person wouldn’t work: the performance, the limitation and partiality of first person narration is endlessly fascinating but the mind never escapes from its skull in first person narratives. If you make a first person narrator omniscient (like Kazuo Ishiguro does in The Unconsoled) then the reader is apt to think the narrator is lying, mad, or dreaming. The action of Fell needed to be more reliable than that.
The most obvious choice was third person focalised through a number of ordinarily limited characters and the next couple of drafts constituted attempts at that. Experience had to teach me that while first person was too narrow, third was too wide, and wide in exactly the wrong place.
Because third person is incredibly elastic it can contain the frenzied stream of consciousness of Joyce and Wolf to the controlled, judgement-withheld distance of Hemingway that we like to pretend is ‘objective’. It can ooze backwards and forwards between these poles as many times can you like – within a paragraph, within a sentence, even, if you can pull it off. As readers we accept this constantly moving yet entirely controlled hand of the author shining torchlight into every dark corner of consciousness the novel requires. But it is the author-as-narrator who has escaped from flesh, not the characters. I was stuck. For a long time.
What helped was remembering what drew me to fiction in the first place. Fiction is the nearest thing we have to telepathy because it evokes inwardness, or in other words, what goes on inside the meat and bone of our physical selves. So many of the rules about what we can and can’t do with first and third person point of view in narrative prose are really about what we can do with our bodies. But what if I decided to disembody my narrators and allow them to do what couldn’t be done in real life? As I was writing a novel about magic, haunting, healing and unwanted miracles you’d think it wouldn’t have taken me nearly two years to come up with this solution but with a commitment to the unrealistic (finally) in mind, I decided the only thing that would work for Fell was a first-person-plural-unreliable-omniscient.
What this means is, I decided I wouldn’t have an ‘I’, I would have a ‘we’ and this ‘we’ would be able to see anything a god-like third person narrator would be able to see, but they’d feel something about it too – they’d be helpless but implicated witnesses. To put it more simply: I turned my narrators into ghosts, made inwardness outward and collapsed the absences in the present with the presences of the past.
Developing the ‘rules’ or the physics for how all this would practically work was not easy and there was no rulebook or creative-writing how-to guide that would help. My editor and some early readers – including Emma – asked hard questions to which I didn’t yet know the answers. Do these narrators act on the scenes they describe, or only witness them? Does their presence affect the action in any way at all? Does a ‘we’ speak about each of its members as a ‘she’ or as an ‘I’? Is the witness this strange narrative voice bears a straight recounting of what happened – like the objective replaying of a film, or does it have the texture of memory – unreliable, distorted by time and emotion and motivated by a particular intention?
Other books helped too, as they always do. From Kate Walbert’s Our Kind I learned that the first person plural in the past tense can’t help but sound elegiac – ‘we’ are narrating a series of events and a set of relationships that by implication don’t exist any more, but those ‘I’s are brought together by both remembering and narrating them – it is a point of view that speaks perfectly to loss and remembering. The speaking brings a shared past and lost relationship back into being. What better point of view, then, for a story that is only able to be told once the return of the daughter to the long-abandoned family home jangles the spirits of her parents back together and into consciousness?
Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides taught me how guilty and culpable the ‘we’ voice can sound – how the reluctance to take personal responsibility can rise from the narration like a stink. That was perfect for a narrating couple who were only just beginning to realise the extent of their deficiencies as parents in the past and confront the haunting horror of their near complete helplessness and inability to correct past errors in the present.
The wonderful opening sections of John McGregor’s Even the Dogs reminded me that time in novels doesn’t need to work the way we think we experience it in real life either; that past and present can collapse together, can pool through each other and run in and out of the plot without warning. From him I learned that if you are going to do that, the reader will need help to find their footing through the artfully placed plunge pools and quicksand. McGregor’s opening taught me that if time will shift, then perhaps place needs to be a strong and constant thread throughout the work. In Fell The house, though decrepit and tottering, became the solid screen on which the present action of the novel and the re-enactments of the past were projected.
Muriel Spark’s ‘Portobello Road’ showed me that death and disembodiment need not hinder a narrator, as did Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Both of those books, along with Lucy Wood’s Weathering taught me that the modern reader still has an appetite for ghost stories, that the genre needn’t be all flapping bed sheets and clanking chains and that in our rational age, readers can still be invited to be curious about the porousness between the corporeal and the magical and that the impossibly unreal might be the best narrative tool available to me to tell Fell the way it needed to be told.