'Everything Love Is' and the contract between writer and reader, by Ali Bacon
I ran into author Claire King a few years ago on Twitter when her novel Night Rainbow (which I really enjoyed) was accepted by an agent and then a publisher. Since then Claire has not only had her second novel published but also moved from France to Gloucestershire, and so on a sunny Saturday in July, I met her at her book signing in Stroud (complete with luscious macarons) and came home to bury myself in Everything Love Is.
As expected the writing was gorgeous and the opening had a hint of intrigue in the narrative voice. Fifty pages in I wasn’t so sure. The main character, Baptiste, a therapist who lives on a canal, was lovely and I wanted to know what was happening to him. But what was happening? The second voice (or was it more than one?) was still perplexing me. Who was Chouette, the owl to Baptiste’s kingfisher? Just when I thought I had worked it out – tada! – I was proved completely wrong. I considered throwing my lovely new book across the room, but chose the alternative course of looking up reviews, not because I wanted the plot explained, but just to see if I was the only stupid person out there. Apparently not (phew!) - others had also struggled with the opening - so I took a deep breath and carried on.
In the end I loved it too and you can read my review here. But it was a very close thing and made me think about the bond of trust that’s formed between writer and reader and how far it can be stretched.
Remember that book from the 70s. I’m okay, You’re okay? - a mantra which sums up the ideal working relationship. I think it also applies to reader and writer. A good writer inspires confidence – we want to feel safe – okay - in their hands. We also want to feel a bit flattered by being allowed to work things out for ourselves and not have everything spelled out. That makes both of us okay – oh that’s clever and so am I. But what if we can’t work it out? That leaves us with two options, either a) the writer has messed up or b) I am dim. Either way that bond of trust is broken. From page 50 (my usual giving up point) to page 90 or thereabouts, when I began to see the light, things were not okay between me and this author!
In fact there is a very good reason for the confusion that reigns in the first third of this book but just to satisfy the part of me that nearly threw the book away, I went back to ask Claire a few questions.
Ali: Hi Claire - did you always intend the structure to be as it is and had you chosen the voice of Chouette from the start?’
Claire: Hi Ali – no! My first draft of the book was in first person, with only Baptiste narrating. This was a style that worked well in The Night Rainbow because whilst Pea [five-year-old narrator] was a naive narrator, the adult reader could infer the wider story from what she saw and heard. But in Baptiste's case, because of the nature of his story, that wasn't a workable approach. In my second draft I switched to third person point of view, but it felt flat and expositional.
Ali: So then you chose Chouette?
Claire: Yes, eventually I settled on the dual narration, switching between chapters. It became clear that not only did this work for telling Baptiste's story, but that the story was in fact just as much Chouette's as it was his. And that was, for me, the moment when it started to become a real story about love.
Ali: I can see that dual narration gives the book a great dynamic and I suppose it would lose something if we knew the identity of Chouette from the outset. But did you realise you would be giving your readers a bit of a headache?
Claire: Once the manuscript was with
Bloomsbury, I spent a long time
working with my editor to refine the pacing and the balance between the two
voices, particularly in the first part of the book. I know that what resulted
asks the reader to live through some disorienting moments initially, and that
that might risk putting some readers off early on, but I do think it is worth
the risk, because I wanted to take readers on a journey that can't adequately
be explained any other way.
Ali: I admit I’ve tried and failed to think how else you could have got the effect you wanted in this book, although it’s certainly a risk to leave the revelation so late.
So there we have it. Claire and I, I’m glad to say, are friends again, and I hope people do persevere with Everything Love Is as it’s a great read with many lovely stories entwined with those of Baptiste and Chouette.
|Author and reader need to be friends!
Or if you're a writer, have you ever worried about how much of a risk you can take with your reader's patience or trust?
Remember anyone who comments will be entered in the draw for a free copy of Claire's novel.
Many thanks to Claire for spilling the beans and to Bloomsbury for the free copy.