Sunday, March 27, 2016

How Does an Author Construct a Layered Narrative to Make it Appear Innate?

            Texts that utilize temporal play are my preference to read for both enjoyment and analysis; fiction and nonfiction texts that include multiple timelines, multiple points of view, juxtaposition of texts, and intertextuality will always move to the top of my to-be-read pile. I will even read a young adult novel that mentions any of those devices in its blurb. So while experiencing J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., because “reading the text” does not adequately describe what I had to do, I wondered, “How does an author create this? How does he or she keep everything straight but also realistic?” I thought about some of my favorite layered narratives from this course and from my past reading, and I searched for interviews with the authors. I expected to find a similar thread of method, but, instead, I found many vague answers with little commonality.
            The most straightforward multiple narrative text that I own is The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition prepared by the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation; I’ll be honest in that I own it because my collection of books by and about Anne Frank would not be complete without it, but I have not read it because the format is not comfortable for reading. This critical edition is a compilation of the three versions of the diary: 1) Anne’s original diary that is honest reflection of the life in hiding of an adolescent Jewish girl in the 1940s; 2) Anne’s edited and rewritten version of her original diary onto loose leaf paper; and 3) Otto Frank’s edited version for public consumption after World War II. Anne documented that the group in hiding had listened to a radio address by “Gerrit Bolkenstein, Minister of Education, Art, and Science in the Dutch Government” delivered  in London in which he stated, “If our descendants are to understand fully what we as a nation have had to endure and overcome during these years, then what we really need are ordinary documents—a diary, letters from a worker in Germany, a collection of sermons given by a parson or a priest” (Netherlands 59). Anne rewrote her diary with a future audience in mind and “drew up a list of name changes: ‘Anne [Frank]’ became ‘Anne Robin,’ ‘v. Pels’ became ‘v. Daan,’ ‘Pfeffer’ became ‘Dussel’” and so on (Netherlands 61-62). However, when Anne’s father Otto read his daughter’s diaries, he had “[h]ighly personal motives” to make additional changes before publication: “his strong attachment to his dead daughter; his awareness that with publication he would be putting into effect Anne’s dearest wish—to become a famous writer one day; and his feelings of respect, first and foremost towards his dead wife, but also towards those others about whom Anne had made less than pleasant remarks” (Netherlands 166). Gerrold van der Stroom suggests that a reader of the critical edition could “follow only what Anne Frank wrote in her first draft, he should read version a and ignore versions b and c. He will then be reading the book horizontally” (Netherlands 169). However, the layout of the three versions—one on top of the other to be read in a 1/3 of a page horizontal—does not feel natural.
            The text that immediately came to mind when I heard the description of S. was the Griffin and Sabine series by Nick Bantock. The series began as a trilogy but ended as a series of seven books; I have read and own the first five (I didn’t know that numbers six and seven existed until I searched to verify the number; interestingly, number seven was released this past week on March 22nd). Unlike S., this series does not include an original text; rather, the narrative is told through correspondence, letters and postcards. Like S. each author has a distinct handwriting. Each text is very visual with the fronts of the envelopes and postcards drawn on the pages; the backs of the postcards are also drawn so that they cannot be handled. But the letters are physically inside envelopes attached to the page so that the reader must remove each letter to read it. While a linearity exists within the texts, the texts play with the temporality especially in consideration of setting and reality. In an interview with IndieBound, Bantock describes his process: “I work in a circle. If I don't know what comes next, then I simply move on to something else. I tend to work from the middle outwards. An image will give me an idea for the text, and the text will give me an idea for an image, and I build up from the center outwards.” He admits that his method “sounds like new-age tripe, but I start where the book wants to start. Images and ideas are always floating through my head. It's a constant process. I'll do a little drawing, put it on the wall, and little by little things start to belong and have a place. Then it's moving them around until they have a place, like a jigsaw.” Bantock concludes that his books are “a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and a collage that you just keep moving and moving and moving. There's a point where there's some kind of internal click.” Not exactly a process that can be duplicated, but one that makes sense; once the text feels natural, the “click” occurs. Natural is not a construct but rather a feeling.
            A text that I both enjoy and have analyzed in Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase. I read the book because my junior high had put on the play; as an education major, the conflicts faced by English teacher Sylvia Barrett and her colleagues resonated with me. When I had to choose a text for my master’s thesis, I chose Up the Down Staircase as my case study text, in part because it had almost no secondary analysis and in part because it was created as the juxtaposition of texts. Again, a linearity exists within the narrative; the plot moves from the first day of the fall term to the first day of the spring term. However, the narrative is a compilation of letters, memos, overheard dialogue, information written on chalkboards, and student work. All texts created by Bel Kaufman but ones that feel natural. The novel was based on a previously published short story “From a Teacher’s Wastebasket”; Kaufman described her process as “I had jotted down some scraps of paper, which juxtaposed together showed a picture of waste, of lack of communication, of discipline problems, of loneliness.” She had taught in the New York City schools, so Kaufman had first-hand experience in the texts that she created; the feeling of authenticity was corroborated the teachers from across the country who would write to say, “‘How did you know? You described my class, my students, my problem.’ And I treasure all the letters that they sent me.” While her texts don’t have the look and literal feel of the real texts, the reader cannot remove them from the book and, for example, the student work is not printed on lined paper nor is it handwritten, the emotions summoned by those teachers vouch for the naturalness of the texts.
            Another series that I have enjoyed reading is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series that begins with The Eyre Affair. Fforde plays with texts that he assumes his readers will know, such as Jane Eyre, but he has created a different 1985 and a parallel universe that is inhabited by the literary characters. Think of it as a living library in which the characters rest outside their texts when they are not on pages being read, and in which the characters can travel between texts and actually change the texts. Intrigued? Then I strongly encourage you to pick up The Eyre Affair. This fantasy element is realistic as long as the reader brings in the requisite suspension-of-disbelief. To create the multiple timelines, time travel, and parallel universes, Fforde was inspired by “[b]ooks, radio shows, newspaper reports, 70s sitcoms, films, plays. The Eyre Affair has tons of ideas compressed into it; if something amuses or grabs my attention then I try to attach it leech-like to the story and then let it grow” such as, “the Charge of the Light Brigade, Jane Eyre, the biggest corporation ever, an explanation of spontaneous human combustion, the notion of catching a meteorite with a baseball mitt, arguing about who wrote Shakespeare's plays, driving through a time warp and a police department that deals with werewolves.” Fforde describes his process as a “continuous linking of disparate strands [. . .] that [he] find[s] very enjoyable and quite challenging.” He admits that the “[c]ross-genre feel of the book put a huge amount of publishers off (76 rejections) and the précis itself condemned the manuscript to be unread by everyone I approached -- until my agent, hungry for material, read the whole thing, loved it and sold it to Penguin seven weeks later.” So someone had to give the narrative a chance in its entirety to be able to appreciate the innateness that results from Fforde’s construction.
            The novel that I am analyzing for my Pecha Kucha is Violent Ends edited by Shaun David Hutchison. This young adult novel caught my attention after I received an advanced reader copy at the ILA conference in July 2015. The plot about a school shooting, one of my worst fears, did not draw me in; rather, it was the blurb describing a story told through seventeen points of view written by seventeen young adult authors. I was hooked. The novel is amazing; I believe that it only received one starred review because the topic is not the usual bubbly young adult fare. The idea belongs to Hutchison; he explains on the Violent Ends website that “I had this crazy idea to write a story about a young man (Kirby Matheson) who brought a gun to school and shot his classmates. I didn’t want to tell the story of the shooting itself, but rather the story of the shooter as told by the people who knew him” and to do so “I wrote out a list of authors I could only dream of working with. Authors who works I loved and whom I respected immensely. I was certain they would laugh at my crazy idea. I wasn’t proposing an anthology, but a single story written by seventeen different authors.” When the authors agreed to Hutchison’s proposal, they worked “in a shared world with shared characters and shared histories. Each story would stand alone but would also be connected to all the others in both major and minor ways. [. . .]  We worked together online, trading inspiration, feeding off each other’s ideas, and hammering out the details of the school layout and what kind of car Kirby Matheson drove.” Because of this collaboration, with multiple writers paying attention to the numerous details, this disjointed narrative told from multiple points of view and over multiple settings (time and place) creates a realistic account of a school shooting.
            So, what about some of the novels we have read? Julia Alvarez explains that “it’s never as easy or clear a process when you are inside a mess and trying to make it a novel,” but years later she realized that the structure of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents “should recreate the way that I want the reader to experience the story. And that’s when I thought, I want my reader to be thinking ‘like an immigrant,’ always ‘going back to where we came from’; instead of progress toward a climax, a return to a homeland.” Alvarez’s construction came from her desire to make the experience natural.
In an interview with Robert Alford, Jennifer Egan explains that she was influenced by both Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and HBO’s The Sopranos in constructing her narrative. Proust influenced her choice to write a novel that spans years: “I especially loved Proust’s ability to capture the transformations and reversals that happen over time, the way that outcomes are so often unexpected and in fact almost the opposite of what you would expect.  The biggest question for me was how to capture the sweep and scope of those transformations and reversals without taking thousands of pages to do it.” To answer the question of “How?” was answered by narrative created for The Sopranos: “I was also watching The Sopranos, which also unfolded at a leisurely, kind of real time pace, through which the children in the series grew up, and all of the characters visibly aged,” which is accomplished through “this lateral approach in [. . .] in which a minor character suddenly becomes a major character for a while and then goes out of focus again, and the overarching story is almost invisible at times in the face of subplots and complications that are so engrossing that one almost would forget what the story, capital S, of the season was.” According to Egan, a narrative that draws in the reader or watcher with such intensity that one will not notice when characters appear or disappear creates an innate experience.
Finally, S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. Abrams is honest about his role as conceiver; he was intrigued by a novel he found in an airport that had a message written on the inside cover: “To whomever finds this book—please read it, take it somewhere, and leave it for someone else to find it.” He thought, “[W]hat if there were a very cool book that was completely annotated—just covered in marginalia and notes between two people? And—what if a conversation, or a relationship, began inside a book?” When pitched the idea years later, Dorst was excited by “the challenge of telling a story in this really restricted form” and added his own twist, “[W]hat if there were a mystery about its author? It seemed like it would be really, really fun to make up an entire bibliography and history about this writer. From there, it was a small step to deciding that the people who are reading the book should be book geeks themselves.” Dorst describes constructing both Ship of Theseus and S.: “I would’ve been well-served if I’d had a whiteboard, but I’m a fundamentally disorganized person, and I had nothing resembling an organizational system! I wrote Ship of Theseus first, all the way through—everyone agreed that it really had to be able to stand on its own—and then I layered in the marginal notes. A lot of it was trial and error.” Throughout the process, Dorst shared his work with Abrams and Abrams’s Bad Robot colleague Lindsey Weber; Abrams compared the process to writing a screenplay: “There were outlines and pitches at the beginning, then early chapters. Lindsey would often work with Doug, and then show me stuff.” Interviewer Joshua Rothman attests to the authenticity of the marginalia: “And the language in which the handwritten letters and notes are written feels very natural in its cadences. You feel like you’re snooping on something intimate,” and Abram confirms their desire to construct an innate experience: “It’s intended to be a celebration of the analog, of the physical object. In this moment of e-mails, and texting, and everything moving into the cloud, in an intangible way, it’s intentionally tangible. We wanted to include things you can actually hold in your hand: postcards, Xeroxes, legal-pad pages, pages from the school newspaper, a map on a napkin.” Like Garcia, Abrams and Dorst had a desire to construct an innate text.
Although some of the authors purport to focus on construction, those authors all implied that they know they are finished when the text feels complete, which is not much different from the authors who start with the desire to create an authentic experience for the reader. They, too, know that they are finished when the text feels complete. The common thread seems to be a willingness to be open to all possibilities combined with a willingness to revise until the jigsaw is complete. Not a definitive answer, but at least it’s not a formulaic one either.

Abrams, J.J. and Doug Dorst. S. London: Mulholland Books, 2013. Print.

Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation. The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical
            Edition. Ed. David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom. Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans and

            B. M. Mooyaart-Doubleday. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Print.

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