Today is my stop on the That Dark Remembered Day blog tour. Author Tom Vowler discusses the merits and difficulties of writing from a female perspective.
At a recent reading an audience member asked me about writing from a female perspective (my first novel, What Lies Within, being narrated largely this way). At the time of planning the book, I’d thought it no different to trying to capture any other voice – a child’s, an old man’s, someone from a different culture or era. But, looking back, I think it presented some interesting and unique challenges. Several sections of my second novel, That Dark Remembered Day, are narrated by a female character, and, at time of writing, my next book will be told entirely this way.
The first impression someone gets of a text, before any true sense of plot or setting, is the character’s or narrator’s voice, so it needs to be both compelling and convincing if it’s to accompany the reader for 300-plus pages. It must set them at ease, be both resonant and consistent, so that, within a sentence or two, a connection has been made, an initial trust established. Fiction’s primary function is to create the impression of reality, a verisimilitude or plausibility, even in science fiction or magical realism the illusion must be maintained. If the spell is broken, even for a second, the story’s vividness is lost, the voice doubted.
I’d heard of writers who ‘do the opposite sex well’, as if it was some arcane, innate talent, or perhaps a module on a creative writing course, and I wondered whether I was one of them. The genesis of much of my fiction tends to come from an event, or at least a concept that fascinates, appals or terrifies me. This could be something seen on the news, or an experience closer to home, which immediately becomes the fulcrum the story turns on. With What Lies Within this took the form of a woman who’d been subject to a serious sexual assault, and so having taken this
dramatic starting point I needed a woman to narrate much of the book, and so I set about creating one.
There are certain scenes and themes in that novel that, owing to my gender, I literally could not experience, and so much time was spent in conversation with female friends, as well as conducting interviews with some brave women, as I attempted to tease out the detail I sought – much like researching anything else, I suppose. But it soon became clear it was the smaller things, the intricacies and nuances of my female character, that would give me her voice: her language, both internal and external; how she regarded herself and others; her mannerisms; how she reacted to all the terrible and wonderful things that happened to her. It was an enormous challenge to put myself in her shoes, to inhabit her world, to try to understand the torment she felt. As was describing the sexual scenes from a female point of view.
Looking back, though I wasn’t entirely aware of it at the time, it was perhaps somewhat of a huge gamble – but then writing a novel usually is – the potential for getting it wrong considerable. Yet by the time I was at the point of no return, my character was fully formed, living and breathing in my mind, her voice as real as any other I’d written. She accompanied me (or I her?) on vast walks across the uplands of Dartmoor, exploring the beautiful and brooding landscape, where I realised what an important remedy the moor would be for her.
Many early reviews of the novel expressed incredulity that it was written by a man, which I suppose shows I’d done my job. Likewise, when I judge writing competitions, subconsciously ascribing a gender to an entry (pieces are anonymous), I’m always pleasantly surprised to be wrong, the author entirely absent from their fiction.
In That Dark Remembered Day my female narrator is another strong character forced to contend with enormous difficulties. Her husband returns from war a changed man, the traumas he experienced buried yet manifesting daily in his increasingly unhinged behaviour. She is also frustrated: with the labels attributed to her, the role of mother, nurse, wife, her life ebbing away unfulfilled. And as events take a tragic turn, she finds herself at the epicentre of a horror, the legacy of which will last a lifetime. Again the more time spent conceiving the character, bringing every tiny aspect of her to life, the better equipped I felt in capturing her voice. And once you have the voice, the illusion can begin.
Tom Vowler is a novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010 and his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is co-editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and an associate lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, where he’s completing a PhD looking at the role of the editor in fiction. That Dark Remembered Day is his second novel. More at http://www.tomvowler.co.uk
About the book:
“When Stephen gets a phone call to say his mother isn’t well, he knows he must go to her straight away. But he dreads going back there. He has never been able to understand why his mother chose to stay in the town he grew up in, after everything that happened. One day’s tragic events years before had left no one living there untouched.
Stephen’s own dark memories are still poisoning his life, as well as his marriage. Perhaps now is the time to go back and confront the place and the people of his shattered childhood. But will he ever be able to understand the crime that punctured their lives so brutally? How can a community move on from such a terrible legacy?”