Make of it what you will: In defence of challenging the reader

by LAURA PRITCHETT

My newest novel, Red Lightning, will annoy some people. Yes, I know it, and I suppose I should be sorry. But I am not.

Laura Pritchett 

Laura Pritchett 

Let me explain: For the first several years I was writing this book, it was rendered in standard narrative technique. The plot and characters and themes were all there, and yet, there was something missing. I was taking no risks, and it didn’t seem to be the sort of novel that warranted that, since the characters were all taking the biggest risks of their lives. Then I had an epiphany: Instead of trying to narrate my main character’s dissociative disorder, I would render it on the page. I would use indentations and parenthetical asides and capital letters when her mind was shouting at her. I would blur words so as to better reveal how my main character understood the world.  

Instead of trying to narrate my main character’s dissociative disorder, I would render it on the page.

I went through the manuscript and re-wrote the entire thing. During that time, I read Keri Hume’s The Bone People, and I must say, it contains the most essential “Author Introduction” in all of literature, because without it, we’d all likely throw the book across the room. In it, she acknowledges what she’s done to readers, which is to throw us into utter confusion. To be blunt, she does something similar, and it makes her book hard to read. Worse than that, the difficulty seems without purpose—it’s difficult just to be difficult. There are parenthetical asides, strange indentations, capital letters, and a Faulknerian change-of-consciousness that’s unannounced. There are breaks in the line, as if she’s suddenly writing poetry; then there are pages and pages with no break at all. Some dialogue has quotation marks, some doesn’t. Some thoughts are in italics, some aren’t. When she says in her introduction that several publishers turned it down because it was “too unwieldy, too different when compared to the normal shape of a novel,” I did not doubt.  

In all my reading life, I have never put a book down so many times. But I persisted out of some kind of moral obligation: the novel won the Booker Prize in 1985 and I was living in New Zealand at the time, which is where Hume lives and where the novel is set. When I got frustrated—which was often—I flipped back to the introduction where I had underlined several lines to keep me going: 

The editor should have ensured a uniformity? Well, I was lucky with my editors, who respected how I feel about oddities. Maybe the editors were too gentle with my experiments and eccentricities. Great! The voice of the writer won through. . . . To those [who are] used to one standard, this book may offer a taste passing strange . . . Persist.
— Hume

That last word--persist--I had underlined several times, which was smart of me.

As a writing teacher, I was particularly annoyed when she blatantly disregarded basic writerly rules: Don’t lose your reader. Don’t purposefully confuse them. Remember that ‘vivid and continuous dream’ idea; it’s a good one. And very basic truths too: Use correct punctuation. If you’re going to break a rule, do it consistently and with purpose.  

As a writer, I was annoyed because she was ruining my plan. Because here is my secret: I naively hoped I’d be the first one to do some of this stuff. I had not yet read Hume’s book when I started my “unique narrative technique,” and for that, I’m glad, because naivety can bring a certain kind of zeal and confidence.

After reading Hume’s book, I looked at my printed manuscript. It sat on my desk, covered in the feedback from one of my mentors, Rick Bass, who hated this technique as well—he couldn’t get into the story, he kept seeing the writer instead of the characters, it was too much. I looked at his comments, I looked at Hume’s book, and I cried. I decided I would not do that to my readers, and I went to my computer and cut all the “oddities,” as Hume calls them.

Then I put them back in.

Then I took them out.

Then I put them back in.  

The arguments I had with myself while walking the trails or beaches of New Zealand were exhausting and miserable. I both hated and loved the idea of messing with the narrative; I simply could not decide if introducing a nonstandard device would be disruptive or revealing. Finally, Hume’s words gave me the courage. Persist. In finding middle ground, that is. Or, rather, 80% ground, because I pulled back and cut most of the “oddities.” What I left, I made purposeful. 

In the end, I settled on two big risks. One was an occasional device wherein the text is deeply intended only when my main character, Tess, disassociates from herself. Moreover, the novel is told in first person, but when Tess becomes disembodied, a third person omniscient self floats around and advises her. She insists she feels too little, can’t feel any emotions at all, in fact, but reader suspects that the opposite is true. In fact, she feels too much – and this floating bossy voice is her way of coping, and therein lies the dramatic irony. Within this device, I have small nuances. For example, after a critical scene, this third person becomes first, a signal that she is becoming “reunited,” which is important during the climax, when she needs to disassociate in order to do something horrible—her PTSD finally comes in handy. All this was intentional and carefully constructed. I wanted form to inform content.

All I can say is: Yes, I hear you. I own my choice.

The other risk, which was more fun, was to meld words together, such as “dearheart” or “boneknowledge” or “heartfade.” I’ve always used this technique, but in this book, it became a clear part of her voice. Tess’s way of understanding the world is by pushing words and ideas together, perhaps in response to her tendency to separate. I’ve always felt that careful melding of words (without a dash or space) creates a new image in the reader’s head. One thing I’m inordinately proud of, in fact, is the list of words that the copyeditor sent me to acknowledge she had not fixed these words, improper though they were. The list is five pages long. To me, it reads like a poem. It made me laugh, remembering how many times I had to click “Ignore” when I ran a spell-check on my computer.  

Now that the book is about to be released, I’m nervous to see how readers will respond. Perhaps they will throw my book across the room? Of course, I hope they pick it back up, dust it off, and start again. Some readers might embrace it, some will surely resist. All I can say is: Yes, I hear you. I own my choice. Like Hume, I hope that it’s ultimately what gives the book its strongest punch.

When I finally got through The Bone People, I was stunned by the rendering of humanity in such a real, raw way. Her book is the best example I know of, in fact, of writing that tries to access all those voices we have going on inside us, all the confusion of one moment in time, all the chaotic stuff of life. Hume’s last line of her introduction: “Make of it what you will.” That’s what I now tell my students when I teach this book, it having become a favorite of mine. Make of it what you will.

***

Laura Pritchett is an author and a conservationist whose work is rooted in the American West, particularly the mountains of Colorado. She is the author of the novels Red Lightning, Stars Go Blue (finalist for the Reading the West and the Colorado Book Award), Sky Bridge (winner of the WILLA Fiction Award), and Hell's Bottom, Colorado (winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and the PEN USA Award). She is also the author of Great Colorado Bear Stories (nonfiction) and editor of three anthologies: Pulse of the River, Home Land, and Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers.

For more from Laura Pritchett, visit her website or follow her on Twitter/Facebook

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