The question I’m most often asked about Sometimes A River Song, by both readers and fellow writers, is where did Aiyana’s voice come from and how did I sustain it throughout this first person narrative?
This post is my attempt to answer that question and share what I learned about how to develop a unique first person voice.
In the first place I was interested in a river boat community in Arkansas and I wrote a couple of stories using this setting. The stories had a kind of southern voice. I knew what that sounded like. I could hear it in my head from all my years of growing up watching American TV shows and from reading great American fiction.
(One of these stories, How the River Breaks Your Heart was later longlisted for, The Raymond Carver Short Story Prize, and published in For Books Sake – Weekend Reads 2016. You can read it again HERE )
Then one morning I woke up and the words, ‘Silas keeps the book,’ came into my head from seemingly nowhere.
I knew I had to write the words down and carry on writing and find out who they belonged to. I didn’t know it then but this was the first time I’d heard Aiyana’s voice. So I began writing and it felt almost automatic, like some kind of channeling. And it became the short story, ‘Eating Words,’ which was shortlisted for the Manchester Prize for Fiction. Eventually it became the novel. Of course the shortlisting helped give me confidence to continue with the voice.
So, there was a surge of inspiration but what after that? Inspiration by its very nature dies quickly, so you have to grab it with both hands and run with it, then when it is no longer enough that’s when I believe the writer’s craft kicks in and most vital, the willingness to work hard and long at something.
That’s when I began asking myself the questions: is this voice authentic? (Manchester had helped me believe it was) How can I make it consistent? What are its patterns and rhythms? Its unique usages? In Aiyana’s case I was interested in the words she did use but perhaps even more important the words she didn’t. Often it was a question of language, of linguistics, it wasn’t about accent but about phrasing, tenses etc.
To answer these questions I had to listen to as many similar voices as possible. I had to learn as much as I could through reading, think of all those great first person narratives – Holden Caufield in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, being but one. Then I had to listen very hard to this voice I’d begun to create. I had to interrogate it , to make sure I knew it through and through.
I began to carry it around with me, keeping it in my head. I tried thinking in Aiyana’s voice and would often talk to myself in her voice, so that in time I found I almost became her. I did much the same for other characters too. I was also lucky enough to find someone in Arkansas to read some of the novel for me and vouch for its authenticity.
By listening in this way Aiyana’s voice became more and more familiar to me. Once I was about a third of the way in, I felt I knew absolutely what she would or would not say, and how she would say it, though I had to remain constantly vigilant as far as this was concerned and would continue to have to make decisions about usage that meant I had to go right back to the beginning and change certain things. I then had the added difficulty of the fact that Aiyana learned to read in the course of the novel and I wanted to change her speech slightly to reflect her new found literacy.
I got through with dogged persistence, and checking the writing over and over. After the inspiration, came the hard work. And although this is the shortest novel I’ve written it was undoubtedly the hardest in that it demanded an almost forensic attention to detail, which was sometimes exhausting.
I admit I never saw Aiyana clearly, as a visual image. Of course I began to feel I knew her well, her passions, what preoccupied her, her loves and hates. But I didn’t see her, instead I felt and heard her like something living inside me, a voice in my head.
Sometimes A River Song is a finalist in the Peoples Book Prize 2017 – you can read what reviewers have said about here