Years ago, I participated in a writing workshop with Russell Banks, the late, great novelist (Rule of the Bone and, most recently, The Magic Kingdom). It was at a wonderful small conference called Under the Volcano in Tepoztlan, Mexico, that is still going strong. Our small group working with Banks was magical, and I’m still in touch with some of the writers in that group.
I learned a lot from Russell, but there’s one lesson that sticks with me, although it’s one that I don’t think I’ve successfully put into practice yet, at least not in a novel.
All writers know about Point of View. It’s a fundamental decision an author has to make. Who is telling the story? Am I going to use the first person, in which case the narrator is speaking about themselves (even if they are observing what is happening to someone else, like Nick in The Great Gatsby)? Or am I going to use the third person, in which case the narrator is speaking about someone else (even if that narrator is privy to the innermost thoughts of the main character)? Or am I going to use one of the many variations of these options, including the omniscient point of view, or shifting points of view, or even the second person? The possibilities are nearly endless.
The complementary decision that Banks talked about, however, is not often discussed. In addition to deciding who is telling the story and from what point of view, shouldn’t we also care about to whom the story is being told? Or are we assuming that the narrator is simply addressing an unknown future reader, which can seem artificial and unnatural?
Banks said he sometimes imagined two brothers lying in their bunk beds at night with one of them telling the other a story. This choice of an auditor will have an impact on what information the narrator includes in the telling and even the language he uses. The scenario Banks suggested is a particularly intimate one and is appealing for that reason, but one can imagine other relationships between story-teller and auditor that might result in language that is more formal and distant.
This lesson came to mind recently as I read Ann Patchett’s new novel, Tom Lake. The first-person narrator and main character of the novel is Lara Nelson, a woman who is isolating during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic at her family’s cherry orchard in Northern Michigan along with her husband and their three daughters. Because many of their seasonal workers have been unable to come to work the cherry harvest, the girls are (willingly and somewhat cheerfully) pressed into service picking cherries along with Lara. While they pick—over the course of many days—Lara tells the girls the story of her life: how she came to take the part of Emily in a high school production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” in New Hampshire, which led to taking the same part in a college production, which led to her being cast in a Hollywood movie, and ultimately to yet another production of “Our Town” in a summer stock theater in Michigan. It was during the summer stock production that she had a torrid affair with an actor who eventually became very famous and is the reason Lara is telling her daughters this story.
The present action isn’t terribly important to the dramatic arc of the story (except in the way it reveals the family dynamics and then ultimately leads to a resolution of the novel). What is important, though, is what details Lara chooses to tell her daughters about the famous actor and their relationship. She doesn’t tell them everything, although eventually, she reflects on these omissions, so the reader isn’t left in the dark as the girls are. Also, she’s talking to her daughters, so the language she uses about an affair that was intensely sexual is more sanitized than it might be if she were telling the story to a friend or, say, a tape recorder (a device I used in my first novel).
Another factor that makes this structure successful is that Lara is telling the girls the story of her life while they are otherwise engaged in an action. They’re picking cherries or they’re making dinner, or they’re watching a movie together (one that features the famous actor, giving them a reason to pause the movie to talk about him). This makes the telling seem perfectly natural and unforced.
The book is an excellent lesson in how to build a structure that leads organically to choices that affect both the pacing and the diction of a novel.
I’m currently at a writing residency in Virginia working on a new project (about which I’ll have more to say in a future), but I’ll leave you with this image I snapped this week.