Posts Tagged ‘Helen Simonson’

My last entry spotlighted Christopher Moore’s humorous wordplay as an example of a stand-out voice. This entry spotlights an author whose voice stands out for other reasons entirely.

Years ago, a friend of mine visited the Holocaust Museum. The experience moved her deeply. She tried to capture her emotions in writing, but she just couldn’t do it. Finally she sent her essay to me in hopes I would tell her what to fix. Her piece listed what her class had done: they had touched artifacts used in the concentration camps, and they had stared at picture after picture of detainees. The piece finished, “It made us feel really sad.”

Of course the piece didn’t work. My friend had stumbled onto a foundational rule in writing fiction: you can’t generate an emotion in your reader simply by naming it.

Yet you must generate emotion. People read fiction in order to feel. So how do you make feelings contagious?

Helen Simonson’s jaw-droppingly good debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, shows how. In this opening scene, Major Pettigrew has forgotten to leave the newspaper boy’s money under the door mat, and is explaining why to a local shopkeeper at his door, a Pakistani woman he barely knows.

She was already turning away when he was seized with an urgent need to explain.

“My brother died,” he said. She turned back. “My brother died,” he repeated. “I got the call this morning. I didn’t have time.” The dawn chorus had still been chattering in the giant yew against the west wall of his cottage, the sky pink, when the phone rang. The Major, who had been up early to do his weekly housecleaning, now realized he had been sitting in a daze ever since. He gestured helplessly at his strange outfit and wiped a hand across his face. Quite suddenly his knees felt loose and he could sense the blood leaving his head. He felt his shoulders meet the doorpost unexpectedly and Mrs. Ali, quicker than his eye could follow, was somehow at his side propping him upright.

“I think we’d better get you indoors and sitting down,” she said, her voice soft with concern. “If you will allow me, I will fetch you some water.” Since most of the feeling seemed to have left his extremities, the Major had no choice but to comply. Mrs. Ali guided him across the narrow, uneven stone floor of the hallway and deposited him in the wing chair tucked just inside the door of the bright, book-lined living room. It was his least favorite chair, lumpy cushioned and with a hard ridge of wood at just the wrong place on the back of his head, but he was in no position to complain.

“I found the glass on the draining board,” said Mrs. Ali, presenting him with the thick tumbler in which he soaked his partial bridgework at night. The faint hint of spearmint made him gag. “Are you feeling any better?”

If you’ve read attentively, you realize viscerally that poor Major Pettigrew is in shock. Yet he never says so, and neither does Mrs. Ali, and neither does Helen Simonson. We learn it from his body.

Another example: which version makes you feel this character’s tension? First: “Waiting for his job interview, he felt nervous.” Second: “He rubbed his palms on his slacks, and they left moist spots. Looking at them, he felt his heart lurch faster. The room had no air.”

Don’t say, “She felt embarrassed.” Say, “Her face turned hot.” She feels it. Let us feel it. Then we take the hint, and we feel the emotion.

Express emotion by putting it in the character’s body. And I mean in the character’s body. In the example above, if you say “She blushed,” it doesn’t work as well as “Her face turned hot.” That’s because when we’re nervous, we don’t usually see ourselves redden. If we merely see her blush, that is a step less intimate, less visceral, than being inside her body and feeling the blush.

Simonson’s mastery of the Telling Detail staggers me. I love “he felt his shoulders meet the doorpost unexpectedly” because shock feels just like that: you don’t sense Up or Down or Sideways; gravity surprises you. The detail of the lumpy wing chair tells us something about Major Pettigrew: he will keep non-useful objects in his life for show, or because they seem proper. And finally, the bit about drinking from his dental glass just slays me. Who hasn’t told a neighbor “Make yourself at home,” only to watch them violate an unwritten household rule you didn’t realize you had? Simonson keeps the keenly observed details coming, page after page.

Okay. All gushing aside, I have two points in this entry. First, by comparing Christopher Moore and Helen Simonson, two very different writers, I hope I’ve illustrated that you can have a unique voice regardless of your preferred genre or style. Second, if you want to depict a character’s emotions so that your readers feel them, too, express them from inside the viewpoint character’s body. Tuck this technique into your bag of tricks, but somewhere convenient – you should reach for it often. If you don’t, it will make us really sad.