"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

James Lee Burke and Voice in Fiction

Happy New Year!

I'm back in Lincoln, getting ready for the new semester, sitting in my lovely red desk chair on a floor that is not quite level, so that if I tuck my feet up (like I'm doing right now), my chair slides away from my computer.  The joys of old houses, I guess.  I'm putting away the very thoughtful presents my family gave me, including a post-Christmas gift from my sister K3 at a Christmas-Clearance sale.  It makes me miss my Scamp and long for summer.  Part of my present from my sister K2 was tea from Teavana, so this morning I'm drinking my new Raspberry Riot Lemon Mate in my favorite pottery teapot and waiting for my mother to Skype in with my niece's sunny little face.

When I'm on the road, between Lincoln and the Great White North (as an Ohioan friend used to call it), I've become very fond of listening to books on CD.  This is not new or groundbreaking.  Audiobooks are not new.  But in the last few trips north, I've been treating them less as the entertainment they provide on those miles and more as a writer should.  This time, I listened to James Lee Burke's Tin Roof Blowdown, one of his Dave Robicheaux novels set in Louisiana--this one takes place in the days before and after Katrina.  As I'm also rereading Joy Castro's amazing Hell or High Water, apparently I'm in a Katrina state of mind.

Most of my readings of Burke have been in my Jeep, not in paper form, which lends itself to a really interesting consideration of fiction.  Will Patton never does anything for me as an actor, but he's the voice to read Burke's books and in that medium, I'll follow him anywhere.  Most of us writers read our work out loud at different stages of the drafting process, sometimes in a more professional setting of an organized reading.  But I've never really considered what this kind of listening can do for me as a writer.  Generally, when I'm listening to someone else read their work, I'm concentrating on things other than dissections of craft.  Maybe it's because most of my experience with Burke has been auditory that I'm able to concentrate on more than plot.

Listening to Burke during this time when I'm working on revising my dissertation-book, I'm reminded that voice, whether it is in fiction or nonfiction, is all about the sentence.  Even more specifically, it's about the verbs.  On this last revision of my Irish novel, The O'Connor Women, before I tabled it indefinitely, I had worked incredibly hard on voice, to distinguish these four first-person narrators from each other.  After Jonis, my advisor, read it, she looked at me and said, "The voice is all the same."  I wasn't exactly crushed, but more bewildered.  She said, "The sentences are all the same, in each section."  And, of course, they were.  So, shifting the sentences is the next step of revising that novel.  In the margins of my printed copy of my dissertation, which I'm revising longhand before I go back to the computer, most of the notes are about tone and diction, paying attention to sentences, making sure that the approach to the sentences and language match the effect I want the reader to have.  I've been a writer for most of my life, yet the power of sentences still surprises and delights me.

But James Lee Burke.  I enjoy Burke for his position in the world of crime fiction and I enjoy him as much as a writer as a reader.  Someday, I'd like to pick his brain.  Burke's voice--and for that matter, the first-person narrator of Dave Robicheaux-- is characterized by incredible verbs, as well as almost a complete lack of contractions, a combination that results in a more formal voice that suits Robicheaux's Southern character.  This construction of the sentences requires the reader to slow down, to match the pace of reading to the pace of the writing.  This slowing-down of the pace also suits the Southern quality of the prose.  (The shifting of first to third person narrators is something to address in a different post.)

From The Glass Rainbow:  "Two weeks ago the remains of one of [Clete Purcel's] bail skips had been found in the bottom of a recently drained canal, her decomposed features webbed with dried algae, as though she had been wrapped in a sheet of dirty plastic" (21).  This is not to say that more passive verbs are not present in the prose, but the distinction between descriptions that require active verbs, to make the sights and smells and sounds inside Burke's head real to the reader, and the passive verbs are usually confined to technical information (guns, geographical information, etc.).  In the exposition we find the more formal constructions of sentences, even towards not ending sentences with prepositions where they might naturally fall in our speech.  I'm fairly certain that Dave Robicheaux would never end a sentence with a preposition.

I'd like to do a more sustained exploration of Burke's sentences and his voice, the effect on pacing, where and when and how different verbs and different sentence constructions appear in the text.  Maybe it's just an excuse to spend more time with Will Patton's voice.  But the discussion of voice, how it's constructed and the way it functions on a page are not simply helpful for me as a writer, but next week, when classes start, it's going to be forefront on my mind.  Not a bad way to start off a couple of creative writing classes.  As writers, we should learn from everything we read.  If we're not picking up elements to imitate, we're picking up What Not To Do.  If, as writers, we're not paying close enough attention to put down that book a different writer than we started, that's problematic.  Of course, does that mean that as writers we can't just pick up a book for pleasure, without analyzing it?  Maybe, at some level.  But the two aren't mutually exclusive.  Best are the books that make us want to write when we finish reading them.

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