On Elle, Gordon Lish, novels, point of view, conflict, character and other dark topics — Douglas Glover
I just did Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s University of Toronto online class on Elle over three days this week. Since I hate to let words disappear into the ether, I am posting a digest of my answers to class questions here. I have deleted the actual questions since it would be too much work to get permissions from all the students (it was an intelligent, perceptive and eloquent group). Most of the questions are implicit in the answers.
On researching Elle and historical novels in general: This is a vast question and speaks to some extent to an author’s intention. I don’t set out to create costume melodramas or documentary histories which might require huge amounts of research. I don’t try to recreate contemporary dialogue (always a failed project). I tend to research looking for precise kinds of facts. What did people think about? What were their motives? How did they act? Always assuming that people distantly removed in time from us are alien in systematic and peculiar ways but also in an evolutionary line and I look for crucial details that will dramatize and ironize that difference. I do a kind of anthropology, if you will. And I look for small, precise facts that will convince the reader I know everything there is to know.
Practically speaking, I read general books about a period. And then focus and refocus the research until I get to the stage of tracking through the bibliographies of scholarly papers looking for obscure essays on small details of custom or behaviour.
The best books I read, of course, are listed in the author’s note in the novel itself.
On my editor’s contribution: The editor was quite restrained in her remarks. They mostly dealt with copy editing issues. And, no, I don’t recall any issues with historical accuracy. I had already published another historical novel, The Life and Times of Captain N, in which I used deliberate anachronism for structural effect. I don’t think anyone was confused.
On the other hand, I cut another 5,000 words out of the ms. after it came back to me. I always cut things at the last minute, the more the better.
On Gordon Lish and learning to cut: Thanks for your kind words about the birth scene. It was a deep pleasure to write. The thing to remember is that in prose though the words are written and read serially the effect can be simultaneous. So the passage works by the serial juxtaposition of images of deformity and death and images of maternal love.
The question about editing is interesting. Thanks for pushing me a little more. My best lessons in cutting came from Gordon Lish who was my editor for The Life and Times of Captain N at Knopf. He also took a story of mine for The Quarterly and I interviewed him once when I had a radio show at the Public Radio station in Albany.
He did very little hands on editing with the novel. He just sent it back with a note that said cut about 5,000 words of history, background and explanation. I did that and sent it back to him. Then he sent it back to me again and said cut another 5,000 words of history, background and explanation. He also said not to forget the commas around non-restrictive clauses beginning with “which.”
Every cut I made was like melting fat off a bone. The drama became quicker and clearer. As soon as the words were deleted, I forgot them. I have never regretted a cut scene or explanation. Later, when I interviewed him (I should get out the tape and listen to it again), we talked about his idea of “mystery,” how the white space on the page should somehow float the words in mystery. If you write too much, the mystery dissipates. Mystery here isn’t the same as being mysterious or obscure; it has an almost metaphysical tinge. When he explained it, I almost understood it.
Lesson learned though. At Vermont College, I am known as “the shredder” for my tendency to draw lines through page after page of student work. Boring and dull lines dilute energy. You want only the lines that burn left on the page. So much explanation, commentary and background is unnecessary.
On making things seem real in a text: The question of verisimilitude is pretty broad and, in fact, I never think about it much. Though I do have an essay in the current issue of upstreet about truth, novels and history which might be enlightening in a general sort of way.
One tries to get the larger facts straight so that the general reader isn’t stopped by obvious errors. But beyond that, truth in fiction is a matter of consistency and coherence rather than reference. Kafka wrote a story about a young man who turns into a bug. The fact that this can’t be real in a certain sense doesn’t stop readers from believing in the story in another sense.
So you concentrate on giving enough precise and striking detail to make the reader sense the world of the fiction and then you repeat references to many of those details to give the reader a little pop of recognition here and there along the way. Repetition creates familiarity and familiarity (as in Kafka) is enough to make the reader feel that the fictional world is trustworthy enough to live inside for a while.
Also I think that a lot of verisimilitude in narrative derives from the author inventing plausible and consistent motives for character action. So much of what makes a reader identify with a story has to do with making him engage with the character’s hopes and dreams.
On image patterns: Okay, yes. I call that image patterning. It’s part of the repetitive structure of the novel (or story). All writers do this to some extent. Margaret Atwood, for example, works wonders.
Basically, you take an image, some significant aspect of the character’s scene, and you repeat it. You can add or control meaning by giving the image a little story or by juxtaposition and association. And then you can split off sub-patterns of the main image. If I could do the art work here, I would draw you a diagram.
Once you get the hang of this, it’s a lot of fun. And then you start to set yourself impossible tasks. At the beginning of Elle, the girl throws the tennis ball off the ship and the dog jumps after it. Ball and dog gone, dead, defunct, out of the text. I knew I was doing to bring them back somehow. The problem was how. In the back of his or her mind, the reader is wondering this, too. Then there is the delight of recognition and discovery when Itslk shows up with the dog and the ball. Then the dog and the ball keep coming in again and again.
The tennis ball belongs to the tennis pro lover who dies very quickly in Canada. It’s an aspect of the opening scenes of the novel. It is a part of French culture imported to Canada. It doesn’t do much except remind us over and over of Richard and his failed attempt at colonization. The dog, on the other hand, becomes a kind of subplot. He ends up staying in Canada, the only member of the whole expedition to do so. You can chart the various colonizing strategies and levels of failure (these all count as subplots). Richard tries to make in Canada a replica of the Old World and dies. The General tries to force his French vision onto the new Canada with violence and fails. Elle, more open, finds herself turning hybrid and will never be at home again anywhere. And the dog finds a way to be happy in Canada.
The use of images helps control and focus the meaning of a story. It also creates a density of repetition and reference such that lines of text can be vibrating, as it were, on several different frequencies at once: plot, scene, image pattern, subplot, etc.
And then, of course, some of the repetitions carry barely any weight at all–I think the tennis rackets idea is mostly for fun. But the act of repetition in a text, as I said in my earlier response about verisimilitude, creates consistency, recognition and unity within the text. It relentlessly reminds the reader that, ah, yes, this is the world of the novel I am in.
In my novel The Life and Times of Captain N, there is a more inclusive and systematic use of image patterning. The main image is the Iroquois Whirlwind mask, painted half red and half black. The image represents the split of the Revolution, the split between oral and literate cultures, translation, etc. Everyone in the book eventually bears the mark of the split face. And then I splinter of sub-patterns. The Iroquois word for mask is also the word face. Death is Without-a-Face. And so on. But you can also learn a lot about patterning by reading Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye in which the main pattern is a cat’s eye marble.
How long did it take to write Elle: Your question is pretty complex. How long did it take to write? Well, I got the idea years before I wrote the novel. At some point, I started to write it as a play, and some of the theatrical dialogue actually made it into the novel. Then I started it as a novel, writing a few paragraphs of Elle’s voice, much of the initial What do you do with a headstrong girl? passage. At the time, as often happens, I didn’t notice that this was actually pretty good. Later, I picked it up and started again. Once I got rolling, I think it took about nine months to write. But I had gathered a lot of notes and research materials prior to this final sprint.
I don’t really think about “inspiration” as such. I only think about what is going to happen next, the next line, the next bit of dialogue, the next scene, the next plot step. And I am always playing with a set of technical structures (repetitions, images, subplots, aphorisms) which are fun. And certain problems come up in the writing of any complicated novel. E.g. If I am in a strong first person single character narration, how can I possibly get in information about her uncle and the Quebec colony hundreds of miles away? And, then, since the novel has a mirror or butterfly-wing pattern at the centre (life in Canada and life back home in France), I had to invent a set of events for Elle’s return to France that were interesting and somewhat reflected what had happened to her in Canada. Thus I am always finding that form drives content.
If I am stuck for a way to move ahead, I tend to put in a linebreak and then start with something I have already put in the novel earlier (a character, a moment, a repetition, a theme), and out of that text something new often develops.
And then I am always frothing the text, as it were, looking for verbal excitement and surprise. That’s always fun, too. I am always thinking where can I go with this that will make the reader gasp or sit up and say, Wait a sec! You can’t do that. But I do it anyway. Good readers like to have their assumptions damaged.
On outlines: No, I don’t work from an outline at all. For both my historical novels, the putative historical facts provided a framework of sorts. But in the case of Elle, there was very little to go on, and I deformed some of it anyway. For example, in one contemporary source, it was said that she killed three bears “white as an egg.” This didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t find evidence of polar bears that far south. So I invented a mythic bear. Also the record indicates that she was on the island for two years and some months, but I ran out of plot events after a year, so she gets rescued in my book earlier than in real life (always assuming there was a real girl).
Instead of an outline, I think in terms of form: plot, repetition, reflective structures. If I knew too much of what was going to happen ahead of time I wouldn’t be so inventive.
Reading recommendations: If you are interested in novel form and structure, you might want to look at my book about Cervantes The Enamoured Knight. The middle section is about the history of the form, the main elements of the form, and various theories of what a novel is and how they create unfortunate conflicts in people who don’t understand the differences.
The foundational document in terms of my views on writing and literature is an essay I wrote called “The Novel as a Poem” which you can find in my essay collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son.
I later wrote an essay on novel form that appeared in The New Quarterly No. 87, Summer 2003, along with an essay on short story form. A somewhat rewritten version of this is currently in print in a book called Words Overflown by Stars (an anthology of Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty craft essays and lectures) edited by David Jauss.
On writing across genders: Elle is not my first female narrator by a long shot. Many stories and huge sections of my novel The Life and Times of Captain N are written from a woman’s point of view.
It’s really not unusual at all for a male writer to adopt a female voice or a female writer to adopt a male voice. As Brian Moore once said, It’s just part of the job. He meant that as a writer you’re supposed to imagine yourself into the minds of characters who are not like you.
At an early stage in my writing life, I got incredibly bored with myself and anyone like myself and discovered a feisty, talkative, sardonic female narrator I really liked to be around. If I recall correctly, she came to life in my short story “Red” which, amazingly enough, was first published in Playgirl (I believe it was the first issue with a fully erect centrefold). She released me from the drudgery of male domination and allowed me to think about and poke fun at all sorts of things including men and women.
Whether I do it well or not is for other people to decide, but composing, now and then, from a female point of view has made writing a lot of fun. I don’t think there is any trick to it. I don’t sit there thinking, well, what are women like and how would a woman act in this case. As soon as you start thinking about how men or women act, you’re dead as a writer because you’re always supposed to be writing about a particular man or a particular woman and people differ vastly in their particulars.
The state of marginality or liminality has been an especially interesting theme in my last two novels. And to me it has tremendous metaphorical throw. Every relationship contains a frontier zone wherein all the definitions have to be translated. It’s fascinating to think about love that way.
Same goes for the space between the official and the unofficial. Mikhail Bakhtin talks about the novel as a form that encapsulates the struggle between discourses. His idea of the carnivalesque, in part, derives from this–the idea that carnival is an upturning of the official by the unofficial, the spiritual by the carnal. I tend to think that way about fiction. It’s always meant to subvert some authoritative or generally accepted discourse, to surprise the reader with access to something real.
On women writers (lost and found) and captivity narratives: But you should always examine and test your premises. Were there, in fact, as few female voices as you suggest? One of the main contemporary sources for the Elle legend is a famous collection of early short stories called the Heptameron by Marguerite de Navarre. She was brilliant and well known in her time.
Of course, at a certain level it’s true that some female writers have been overlooked. One of the joys of feminist criticism is its relentless search and rediscovery mission in favour of female writers. But you should always look around before you reiterate the received wisdom about the dearth of female voices from the past. They tend to surprise you by their presence.
As to captivity narratives, I have read a lot. But mostly they were of use in writing The Life and Times of Captain N which is, in part, the story of a captivity (whereas Elle is not). Mary Jemison’s little book was especially helpful because she actually knew Hendrick Nellis, my protagonist, although she misremembered his name as “Captain Nettles.” She also knew his Seneca captive wife Priscilla Ramsay. But beyond coincidental discoveries like that, the literature of captives–not just their narratives and biographies–is rich with anthropological implication. The scholar James Axtell is especially good on this.
Did she actually turn into a bear? Both Elle and The Life and Times of Captain N are about people who find themselves between languages and between cultures. And I don’t just mean the Euro-white protagonists. There are crossover characters coming the other way such as Itslk or Tom Wopat (a character in Captain N). Elle is between a European culture that’s Christian and literate. The natives she meets are from tribal, oral cultures with a shamanic elements in their religions. What is common sense and real in one culture is not necessarily real in the other culture. I ask the question: As one enters the world of the Other, does one actually begin to perceive a different reality? If so, what does that feel like? How does the subject perceive it’s own transformation? In my own mind, I wonder if the world really does look different within another cultural construct? What would I have been like had I been raised in a community that believed in shape-changing, animal totems and ritual curing.
The passages you’re referring to in the novel are an attempt to represent the confusing state of transition from one reality to the other. A native would say, yes, she changed into a bear; a European would say she was hallucinating. In our cynical day, it’s very easy to fall back on cultural relativism which amounts to saying that people believe different things but they’re all wrong except for the scientific observer (cultural relativism amounts, in my mind, to a covert reassertion of the metaphysical correctness of the Euro-white point of view).
On a slightly more personal level, imagine the state of falling in love, when you have to learn the other person’s definitions, point of view, and you begin to change yourself so that you fit into your lover’s sentences. What you thought was true might change or at least be altered ever so slightly. The world is different.
Or think of learning another language.
In philosophical terms, people used to talk about conceptual systems and wonder if different conceptual systems actually described actual different realities.
Frankly, I like the idea that she actually turned into a bear. I like a world where that is possible even though, I know myself, that I am incapable of that sort of transformation.
The objects that are taken out of her body are similarly multi-valenced. a) It’s common shamanic curing practice among the Algonquian natives to massage objects out of the flesh of patients. b) A white westerner sees obvious trickery and doesn’t believe the objects are actually inside the person being treated. c) The objects inside Elle, some of them, are images from other places in the novel (this is me playing with literary effect, even making little jokes). d) I never use the word symbol to describe what I am doing in a piece of writing.
Irony: Basically, I think every sentence should turn the screw a couple of times so that the meaning of the text is both refining itself and becoming more complex (often by inversion) as it proceeds. Irony is a lovely tool.
And, of course, I and my characters generally take a dim view of life on earth, a view that has to express itself as comedy or we’d all be cutting our wrists.
On the first person point of view: I think that if your first person character changes inappropriately from scene to scene it’s because you haven’t imagined yourself into the character deeply enough. In some ways, writing is like Method Acting–you have to become your character, at least, in your imagination. This isn’t a matter of knowing your character objectively, or writing out tedious character biographies on the side. I never even think of characterization as a technical issue. Characters are what they do and why (motivation). And perhaps that is the key–because consistent motivation is a major part of structure in all sorts of ways. A plot is a series of events on a consistent line of desire and resistance. Desire is motivation.
Okay, I’ve given two jumbled answers in one paragraph.
Inhabit your character. In other words, work hard to imagine yourself inside the character’s mind and body in an intuitive and tactile manner. Body is important. Sometimes at the end of a scene, if I don’t know where things are going next, I try to recede into the character’s body, imagine the effects of the scene just finished, imagine the overall desire/motive of the character in the text, and then feel the character’s next move. Given the overall direction of the text and the scene that has just taken place, where does my character go next and why? Sometimes characters change inappropriately from scene to scene simply because the author is foisting a plot move on the character that is out of character–that is, the author has a plan for the story as opposed to letting the story develop organically and playfully. Plans are terrible inhibitions. A sense of form, on the other hand, allows for discovery and play.
The fact that you retreat into the third person is interesting. It seems as if you are trying to escape your problem by pulling even farther away from your character’s subjectivity. Truth is there is very little difference between a close third person single character narration and a first person narration.
There is an awful lot of silly talk in the creative writing world about point of view. The best introductory book I’ve seen is one called Points of View by Moffett and McIlheney. There are two versions: try to find a copy of the older one which is out of print. It’s safe to say that most learning writers have an incredibly narrow idea of how point of view works. No point of view choice is wrong; they all have advantages and disadvantages. The main thing is that whatever point of view you pick, you need to be inventive and flexible. You need, as E. M. Forster says, to “bounce” the reader. Every point of view choice gives you technical options in terms of modulating distance (getting closer or farther away from the character’s mind) and in terms of incorporating other points of view (e.g. one of the disadvantages of the first person point of view is the narrator’s tendency to monopolize the text; but there are some lovely techniques for giving other characters a counter-voice in a first person text so the disadvantage can actually be avoided). You can even mix points of view to keep the reader from being bored. The main thing is to keep the point of view structure alive, surprising and flexible.
It’s possible that your first person character changes from scene to scene because you’ve manacled yourself with a constricting point of view structure and, in the back of your mind, you’re bored with it–so you change the character.
Of course, I say all this without the advantage of having read you work so I might be completely off base.
Solving the first person monopoly problem: You may call that a standard technique for avoiding the first person monopoly, but I find most learning writers haven’t figured it out yet. It’s nice to see that you have.
So, yes, one thing you can do is have your first person narrator imagining, intuiting, speculating on, deducing and interpreting how other characters feel. In Pickwick Papers, Dickens introduces a dog’s point of view simply by having the narrator notice the dog as the coach drives by and imagine what the dog sees.
But the most useful technique would be conflict. The world outside the narrator intrudes upon the text by disagreeing with him and taking action against him. So you construct your scenes and plot such that things don’t go the way the protagonist expects. Reality (and other people) is always surprising, disappointing, hindering. This may seem obvious except that, in fact, in student stories, over and over, I find characters ambling through scenes (hitting all the jumps and gates according to the story plan) without any concrete opposition (passive avoidance, no one telling the truth–these are the worst). The character might as well be inhabiting a dream where everything is a projection of his thoughts.
If you think of a scene or event in a narrative as a win/lose situation, you can see that the most boring text would involve the main character winning every scene (interchange) and thinking about how he won it (self-congratulation). Other points of view become concrete by thwarting the main character. This can be in the dialogue as well–That’s what you think? Let me tell you what I think?
More reading recommendations: Thinking about that last question, the point of view question: I wrote an essay on point of view called “The Masks of I” that’s in my collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son if you are interested.
In addition, I’ve gradually been writing essays on reading and writing for another book of essays, moving toward completion.
Several have appeared in The New Quarterly. Probably not impossible to find via interlibrary loan, or you could wait til my next book of essays comes out.
There is one on the use of rhetorical devices in contemporary fiction. It’s called “How to Read a Mark Jarman Story.”
And there are two essays on writing strong sentences: “The Attack of the Copula Spiders” (on the importance of verb choice) and “The Drama of Grammar” (on the dramatic effect of what I call but-constructions).
If you want to dig more into Elle, you can start by reading the interview and essays about Elle in Bruce Stone’s book about my work The Art of Desire. Stone did an excellent interview with me and Stephen Henighan’s essay is one of the best.
And here is a little list of some terrific critical papers–very insightful and well-written.
“I am a Landscape of Desire: Gender, Genre and the Deconstruction of the Textuality of Empire in Douglas Glover’s Elle” by Pedro Carmona Rodríguez, Proceedings of the 29th AEDEAN Conference: Universidad de Jaén 15 al 20 diciembre 2005. CD-ROM. Ed. Alejandro Alcaraz Sintes et al. Jaén: AEDEAN / Servicio de Publicaciones U de Jaén, 2006. 539-45.
“‘…[D]estined always to be on the edge of things’: Prolegomenon to a Dialogue of Transdisciplinary and Curriculum Theory” by Patrick Howard, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Vol. 20. Iss. 4 p.45, Winter 2004
“Canadian Crusoes from Sea to Sea: The Oceanic Communities of Douglas Glover’s Elle and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi” by John Clement Bell, Moveable Margins, The Shifting Spaces of Canadian Literature, Chelva Kanaganayakam, ed., TSAR Publications, Toronto, 2005
“Surviving the Metaphorical Condition in Elle : Douglas Glover’s Impersonation of the First French Female in Canada” by María Jesús Hernáez Lerena, Canon Disorders: Gendered Perspectives on Literature and Film in Canada and the United States, Darias Beautell, Eva, and María Jesús Hernáez Lerena, eds., Ed. Logroño: Universidad de La Rioja/Universidad de La Laguna, 2007
“Visited Graves in Colonial Cemeteries: The Resurrection of Marguerite de Roberval” by María Jesús Hernáez Lerena, Canada Exposed/Le Canada a decouvert, Peter Lang Publishing, Berlin, New York, Brussels, Oxford, 2009
“Self as Garbled Translation: Douglas Glover’s Elle/Elle,” in Traduire depuis les marges/Translating from the Margins, Denise Merkle, Jane Koustas, Glen Nichols and Sherry Simon, eds. Montreal: Edition Nota bene, 2008. 59-74
you just gave me even more to work with for my essay. You are quite possibly the most helpful person I have ever met.
Follow-up question, Douglas, for your comments on historical fiction (pardon me if they are very naive): When dealing with a real-life historical figure into fiction, how necessary do you think it is to remain very true to facts? Does it just have to be generally accurate, or, if your character was at Redlake on January 1st, 1588 in history, they should be at Redlake on January 1st, 1588 in your book?
I guess what I’m asking is, how far can you fictionalize real characters.
Thanks for the upstreet plug, Douglas. 🙂
Yes, the Elle birth scene. Caught me in a clinic waiting room full of people and my number coming up and here I was struggling to suppress tears.
Thank you, Peter. I can imagine the scene. I appreciate it.