Spring is here in the coastal Acadian woodland we live in. (The Speed of Mercy publishes in the spring, on March 23, 2021, in case you forgot). I hope Spring has arrived where you are (or has sent signs of her impending arrival). I hope to answer a few of your questions from your last letter.
I’ll start with your query about coffee. Yes, I still drink copious amounts. It’s been a haul-of-a-time here, heave-ho and haul away, with the pandemic and ever changing rules, Mum still in the hospital, and the three boys out of sorts after a long year and still three months before summer break. Are any of yours at home now? Please tell me. These domestic details define our writing lives. You’ve told me this many times and I offer your wisdom back, in case your creative heart is weary.
Where did the structure come for The Speed of Mercy? Was it intentional, accidental, a discovery in the early stages? How did the story take shape? Did I impose a structure or did it organically emerge? This is a topic which interests me immensely—the architecture of the book, the form and shape of the story, as much as how the architecture we work in, our physical spaces, and our internal landscape of the creative mind, shapes the work. These are topics for other letters though. Today I’ll try to focus on the structure of a novel.
Grandmother Spider: To spin the web and not be caught in it.
There are so many forms of female nonexistence. Rebecca Solnit
And this is where it begins for me—how to tell the story which must be told. I was partially inspired, earlier on, by Rebecca Solnit’s essay, Grandmother Spider where Solnit explores the erasure of women from texts and history, how we tell stories, how the telling creates history and lineages and who is included. She puts forward the idea of spinning the web, not being caught in it; of drawing nets, the nonlinear, the unending; of naming grandmothers, not just fathers–different ways of telling universal stories.
The Speed of Mercy did not reveal itself in a traditional three act structure (so common in classical works, specifically plays — Ancient Greece and Shakespeare. I’m a huge fan of the plays from these times) nor did the novel unfold as the singular story of just one character.
Instead I have endeavoured to write a spiraling novel, a winding story, turning and coiling. The book circles around two time lines, Then and Now. The characters turn and twist together, inward and outward, a gyre, or how a silken twist of rope is formed. Stella Maris is at the centre of this coiling narrative, but her story intersects with two other primary characters, Mal and Dianne. Creatively, I search for innovation in structure, rather than imitation.
Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative
After reading a first draft (an earlier effort at a novel set aside, and this a new story) my lovely editor, Michelle MacAleese, recommended I read (or reread, as was the case) Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, by Jane Alison. Michelle understood the nonlinear architecture of the narrative, where past and present flowed onward, as tidal rivers, with currents and eddies, tides, ripples and waves, were ending and beginning meet.
I love reading books on writing and style. And then devouring novels both classics and contemporary. It is from these shores my sense of structure, my desire to experiment and find new form, arises. My work is influenced by many books on craft including:
1. The Erotic of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form; and Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, both books by Douglas Glover.
2. Stephen King and his wonderful book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Madwoman in the Attic: “the personal was the political, the sexual was the textual.”
The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, is a fascinating collection of feminist essays which looks at patterns in female writing in a male dominated society, gender and genre to captivity and escape, literary paternity and patriarchal literary constructs. This book reframed the many classics I read and loved, and also put into perspective contemporary female and male writing. And my own.
This returns us to the beginning of this letter, to the idea of architecture: 1. the architecture of society as constructed form and its impact on the writer within; and 2. yes, the story and characters who exist in the architecture of the world of the book, the structure in which they dance and live, forever, waiting for a reader to spiral into the world with them.
So, again, supper to be made, kids to collect, old ladies to attend to, and a walk through the woods before the sun slides down into the sea.
Those are my thoughts for now, on The Speed of Mercy and structure.
Your sparkly friend on the Atlantic Coast,