Monday, March 28, 2011

Victor LaValle on Narrative Voice

This interview with Victor LaValle is one of the best explorations of voice that I’ve come across. It’s longish, but you must read it:

Here are some excerpts if you don’t believe me:

“My definition of “voice” is personality. And since everyone has one (just about everyone) then everyone has a Voice. A lot of times, when I’m teaching, students will discuss voice as if it were just another craft issue. “In this story I want the voice to be a 90 year old woman’s.” Or, “I want to use the voice of a tough cop.” I understand what they’re saying, they want to see how different characters sound, but that’s not the same as voice. As far as I’m concerned, each of us is born and raised with only one writer’s Voice, and no amount of camouflage is ever going to disguise that.

“…this leads back to the idea of writing as a quest for self-awareness through the telling of some kick-ass stories. When you think of it that way you might see why I say voice is simply personality. There’s nothing simple about it, but the person you are (in total, at that moment in time) is what creates the story you’re writing. It’s infused in every piece of punctuation, in the plot, in the most minor character who crosses the page. It’s all your voice.

“But when I read people who have mastery over their voice I always find (always) that when I meet them or hear them speak I can detect the same essence that I discovered on the page. It must be like when a grade school teacher has parent conferences and finally gets to meet the mother and/or father of the child they’ve been dealing with all year. The parent walks in the room and almost instantly the teacher says, Ah yes, of course you’re her parents. For me, that’s when you know your narrative voice is successful. When it’s undeniably, recognizably yours. Even in the dead of winter, covered head to toe in a snow suit and a scarf, you can stand at the edge of the playground and say, That one, right there. That’s my kid.

“So really I think Voice comes down to fear or lack thereof. If the author has parts of him or herself that are considered off limits, that can’t be indulged or addressed (or parts of those people he or she has known) then I think it comes across on the page and the words seem tame, even comatose. Even if the story is compelling, the lines lack courage. I’m not really talking about beauty or poetry here, but blood.

“In that way I think I actually can say exactly what it is that has made people compliment my use of Voice. At some point during that compliment they usually will say things like, I can’t believe you admitted that. I can’t believe you let the character say that or do that. So Voice seems tied to surprise, which is the single great quality that all living things share. All living things will surprise you. But with writing, it’s very easy to get rid of surprises. You can edit them from the page. Or, more common, you can edit yourself even before you put the words on the page.”


And yes, there’s more…as I said, a very smart discussion! And after reading that interview, you should do yourself another huge favor and buy one of his books—which will contain its own lessons about voice. Still not convinced? Read more about Victor LaValle here. And jump if you ever have the chance to hear him read from and discuss his work: I’m pretty sure anyone in the audience on Friday night at the PEN/Faulkner reading would agree with me. Off to go start a Victor Lavelle fan club…haha, sort of.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.