Experienced young adult author, James Moloney, says that when he visits schools, students ask him how to be a writer, and sometimes their faces fall when he tells them they should do lots of reading.* I know what he means. The more I write, and read, the more I become aware of writers’ styles, strategies and structures, and the more they influence my own writing, or at least, the more I become aware of my own writing.
For example, I recently re-read an Australian classic, Stiff, by Shane Maloney (no relation to James – different spelling) and enjoyed the wry commentary of the book’s ‘hero’, Murray Whelan, on the events chaotically enveloping his life. Soon afterwards, I was writing a short story and found myself adding a touch of what I regard as wry commentary to the protagonist’s views. The further the story went, the more I felt I had found his voice – and mine. That story, ‘Walking the line’, was the Queensland winner in the national Adult Learners’ Week competition in September this year. Thanks heaps, Shane Maloney.
More recently I’ve read two quite different books: The secret pilgrim by John Le Carré, and In a strange room by Damon Galgut.
John Le Carre and his character George Smiley are well known to readers of spy thrillers, although Smiley is more a device in The secret pilgrim for Le Carré to string together a series of short stories. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, and noticed some delightful observations from the author along the way, including:
‘She was a tall woman and must once have been beautiful, but preferred to wear the signs of her neglect.’
‘And much time was spent among these exiled bodies [European émigrés]arguing our niceties about who would be Master of the Royal Horse when the monarchy was restored; and who would be awarded the Order of St Peter and the Hedgehog; or succeed to the Grand Duke’s summer palace once the Communist chickens had been removed from its drawing rooms…’
‘He had recently grown himself a moustache for greater integrity.’
Thriller writers may not be nominated for the Man Booker Prize, but Le Carré’s prose is very engaging in a busy genre.
Damon Galgut, on the other hand, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, in 2010, for The Good Doctor, a book I enjoyed. I picked up the later book, In a strange room, at a book remainders sale, and two features jumped at me as I began to read. For a start, it doesn’t use quotation marks for direct speech. I have come across other examples of this, and must confess I’m not a fan of the style. Perhaps I just did too many punctuation exercises when I was at school.
The other feature of Galgut’s book is that he uses first and third person when talking about the same person, occasionally in the same paragraph. Talk about point of view! Take this example:
‘He turns. Reiner is walking towards him. If he offers one word of apology, if he concedes even the smallest humility, then I will relent.’
The ‘He’ in the first sentence and the ‘him’ in the second are the ‘I’ in the third sentence. It’s not as confusing as I thought it might be, but it is a little disconcerting after Le Carré. And perhaps that’s what Galgut intended.
*In the last blog I mentioned my visit to Riverbend bookshop in Brisbane to listen to James Moloney talk about his new adult novel, The tower mill.
[D R Dymock’s biography of pioneer pilot and global adventurer Bert Hinkler will be published by Hachette Australia in 2013. He also has a non-fiction e-book close to publication – details soon.]
Great post Daryl. I had a similar experience recently when I read JK Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’ – she frequently writes in different characters’ points of view in the same scene, something that I have always been told not to do! I must say that I did find it confusing and it frequently took me ‘out’ of the story as I tried to work out whose head we were in. I agree though, it is interesting as a writer to deconstruct other authors’ work and see what we can learn from it!