Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Process Talk: Conversation With Joanne Rocklin, Part 2

In this part of my ongoing exchange with Joanne Rocklin, author of One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street and other novels, Joanne opens the conversation.

[Joanne] Why do you write middle grade?

[Uma] I think we all have ages in our lives that are emotional turning points. Mine is very much located in that 8-12 range. I read voraciously. I spent a lot of time in imaginary worlds (sounds crazy but that's how it was). I think that was the age when I first learned the habits of a fiction writer, although I didn't know it then. So it's a natural age group for me to speak to when I write. And you?

[Joanne] I've always written middle grade; it's my natural voice because, yes, that was the age I read voraciously, too!  I also wrote reams and reams of letters to my best friend during summer vacations when we were at different summer camps. At some point over the decades we exchanged our letters--I have a box of my "middle grade voice" sitting in my garage.  I love that age--innocent yet knowledgeable at the same time, which gives lots of opportunity for humor! turn. A somewhat related question: Can voice be taught?

[Uma] I'm going to assume we're talking about narrative voice here, as opposed to a larger authorial Voice with a capital V. Can narrative voice be taught? Hmm, can writing be "taught" in that sense? It can be learned, I do know that.  What I don't believe is that voice is something I need to "find," as if I'd misplaced the darned thing somewhere. Rather, I believe it's my job to create many voices, each one suited to the story it needs to tell.

I think one can train one's ear to become sensitive to voices on the page, and by that too I mean many voices. For instance, when I get stuck with writing I read. It's that simple. And when I read I'm absorbing voices of characters and I'm also absorbing the narrative choices made by the writer. There may be some people who have a tin ear. Maybe they just won't get this way of learning to write, but in that case maybe they shouldn't be trying to write. There may be people who are more sensitive to narrative voice than others. Even so, I think one can learn to read to pick up the rhythm and flow, the echoes and recursions, of a narrative voice.

As to the other meaning of "voice"--the uppercase meaning of an author's stamp that carries across many works--I prefer not to pay any attention to that. It's just too bewildering to think of my own work that way. Crafting one story at a time is hard enough.

So maybe narrative voice can't be taught, exactly. But you can create circumstances that will allow it to rise to the surface, as it obviously  did for both of us, in both these books.

Over to you now, Joanne. How did that voice come about for you? What were the circumstances that allowed it to emerge? Did it emerge suddenly or incrementally?

[Joanne] I love thinking/talking about "voice" because often it's what separates mediocre from good to excellent work. It's fascinating, even more so because it can't be defined--or perhaps because different people are often discussing different things--even when they assume they're on the same page (excuse the pun!)

I think you've delineated its aspects beautifully just now, distinguishing between narrative voice and "Voice". There's the voice of a particular character, with all its particular quirks  There's the voice of the times, and the slang, lingo used...And also the sheer voice of using lovely, poetic language...which may relate to voice with a capital V, as you put it.

That Voice is what editors are looking for.  I think it means originality, fluency, courage, openness to intuition, personality, and what makes the reader enter your world and forget the real one, or at the very least, enjoy the writing. (Sometimes a voice that's too unique makes the reader aware of the author at the expense of the story!)

Anyway, I don't think THAT Voice can be taught--you either have it or you don't.  BUT, there are ways to make it more easily appear, if indeed it's buried in there somewhere. And that's to clear out extraneous critical voices in your head (i.e. critics, colleagues, other authors' characters, your mother, your own Superego) and just plunge in, listening hard to the voices of the characters in your head.

In both our cases, this time, the omniscient voice did something interesting for us--liberating our stories and characters, as well as adding some richness to our Voices.

[Uma] I think it's true that writing is an act of courage. For myself, I do need to get all possible critical chatter out of my mind. Only then can I listen to the potential of my own stories and move beyond the obvious. You?

The real tree that Joanne magicked into her book
[Joanne[ For One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street,  I knew I wanted to get inside all the characters who lived on Orange Street, even animals and that tree. The omniscient voice served to link them all, and to enter and leave each character.

At the time, I was fortunate to attend a 6-week artists' retreat at the Ragdale Institute.  Nothing to do but listen to all those voices in my head.  I was in heaven.  (I realize saying that makes me sound slightly mad.  But it is a crazy life we lead, isn't it?)

The real house that crept into my book
[Uma] Yes, in the best possible way. A few years ago, I ended up spending some time in the Nilgiris, the mountains featured in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. It was important for me to keep that "real" to the extent I could, so I listened to the "music" of the place--the wind, the echoes of faraway traffic, temple bells, goatherds driving flocks down dirt roads. All those sounds that fed a kind of melody that was starting to take shape in my mind.

Indian writer Ruskin Bond, a legend in his lifetime, says he's willing to read anything "if it has tone, style, and substance." I think it's the qualities of voice that give tone and style to the substance of a story.

The final installment of this conversation is still to come. We don't even know what it is--yet. Stay linked.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful conversation. I'm especially grateful for your defining contrast and delicious depiction of "voice" and "Voice." I can certainly hear YOUR voices!