Thursday, January 19, 2012

Talking to You

Hello there, reader. Here goes my first post on Place for the Stolen, and I'm thrilled to be here. Also, I'm blushing a little from Jenny's kind introduction. Jenny's one of those cool people who is wicked smart and clever. Not to mention that she can, and has, straight up told people in our writing group that, "No! Ali's totally wrong about that!" while still making me feel loved. Hard to do, my friends, hard to do. In short, there's no one whose blog I'd rather be crashing.

Now, time to spread the love a bit more. The timing of joining the blog is great, because Neil Gaiman is high on the list of people I want to be when I grow up. Okay, so maybe I'll take a pass on the hair and the part where he's a guy, but otherwise...

My favorite Neil Gaiman book is American Gods. I love it so much, I even wrote about it in part of my thesis. Tonight, I'm going to focus on voice, i.e. the thing that makes an author memorable. It's what drags us back to their spot on the shelf, eagerly scanning for something new. Voice is the thing that makes us think about what it would be like to sit down over coffee with that author and imagine, "Wow, we would get along famously!"

What I love about Gaiman's voice is that he always seems like he's talking to you. In her post about Anansi Boys, Jenny mentioned folk tales. I think it's a very apt comparison, because Gaiman, at his heart, is really a story teller in a very traditional sense. His work feels like you're listening to an actual person talk. That's why you should check him out on YouTube and watch some clips of him reading his work. And, like every person who's great at telling stories, he even does the voices of the different characters. Consider the very first paragraph of American Gods, which introduces the main character (asterisks are mine, not his):

"Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-f***-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife."

It's easy to get a sense of this character, even though we've only got two sentences. Two sentences which tell you a lot of information and yet are incredibly simple. There's no beating around the bush here. Now, for those of you who haven't read the book, you should know that throughout the book there are a series of short stories and vignettes that tell of people coming to America and bringing their native folklore with them. Shadow's POV is pared down, Spartan. The "Coming to America" passages are more lush. These are the parts that are larger than life and steeped in myth. The voice reflects this. Here's an excerpt from a "Coming to America" passage The passage is dated 1721 and focuses on a woman from Cornwall who's connected to Celtic folk lore:

"Essie's eyes lighted on Bartholomew, the squire's eighteen-year-old son, home from Rugby, and she went at night to the standing stone on the edge of the woodland, and she put some bread that Bartholomew had been eating but had left unfinished on the stone, wrapped in a cut strand of her own hair. And on the very next day Bartholomew came and talked to her, and looked on her approvingly with his own eyes, the dangerous blue of a sky when a storm is coming, while she was cleaning out the grate in his bedroom.

He had such dangerous eyes, said Essie Tregowan."

See how the language changes? And yet, the one thing that remains the same is it's so easy to feel like there's an actual person telling you the story as you sit next to the fire at night.

Okay, so this first post has turned lengthy, so it's time to wrap it up. One of the things that makes Gaiman great, and one of the things that makes him work well in many different genres, is that his voice on the page feels like he's talking to you and only you.  In his poem "Instructions" he's literally talking to you. He uses his voice to create a space that's just you, him, and the story. That's what we talk about when we talk about getting sucked in.

Create the story space, my friends. Nail that, and the rest will follow.

7 comments:

  1. Wonderful post, Ali!

    I am now going to have to check out Neil Gaiman's work!! Thank you...always looking for new authors to enjoy!

    Aunt Sally

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  2. Yay! See? I told you guys she was a smarty. =)

    And I've noticed the conversational tone in Gaiman's voice too. It's so tricky to do without sounding 'narrator-y' ya know?

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  3. I agree- it takes a skilled author to switch between so many different voices. All I've read of his is Neverwhere, but I'll definitely get to American Gods next. Great post. :)

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    1. Hi Lavelle. Neverwhere's a good one, too. The movie is also pretty fun.

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  4. Gaiman is an amazing storyteller. When you're listening to someone tell a story in person, they know they have you when you lean in to hear better. He has that "lean in" factor to his writing. And he makes it look easy, damn him.

    Groovy first post, btw!

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