Monday, May 28, 2007

William Landay

William Landay is the author of the highly acclaimed Mission Flats, which was awarded the John Creasey Dagger as the best debut crime novel of 2003, and the widely-praised new novel, The Strangler. A graduate of Yale University and Boston College Law School, Landay was an assistant district attorney before turning to writing.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
How do you read in one voice then write in your own?

I’m currently reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and I’m having a hard time getting through it. Don’t get me wrong: Black Swan Green is brilliant. I recommend it to one and all. The trouble is that I’m in the tentative early stages of writing my own new novel, and Black Swan Green is precisely the sort of book that jams my creative gears. It is told in a voice so strong and so distinctive — so strange — that it is becoming hard, when I sit down to write, to hear my own voice.

I avoided Black Swan Green for this reason when it first came out, though the reviews were ecstatic. Better to read a book like this when I was between projects. But I noticed it in the bookstore the other day, all decked out in a new trade-paperback edition with a gorgeous cover showing a white silhouette of a swan on a black background, and I fell for the trap. Serves me right.

Of course this whole business of how and what writers read is complex, because what writers read affects what writers write. (That’s one reason this blog is so interesting.) Reading through previous entries on this page, I notice that writers often solve this dilemma by reading books in their own genre. No surprise there, I suppose: crime novelists read crime novels for the same reason they write them — because it’s a genre they enjoy. And no danger of creative interference, because the novel in your hand is composed in the same key as the novel in your head.

But what if the novel in your hand sounds utterly different? Here are a few sentences from Black Swan Green to give you a taste. The speaker is Jason Taylor, 13 years old, growing up in the village of Black Swan Green in Worcestershire, England. The year is 1982.

“Moron’s my height and he’s okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage that pongs of gravy too. ... The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like Fox’s Glacier Mints.”

This is imaginative, virtuosic writing. Somehow Mitchell manages to capture the voice of this 13-year-old boy without ever sounding mannered — without ever winking out at us from behind the mask. His sentences have the cadence of teenage speech, and the jargon too (epic, ace, poxy, sarky). At the same time, his narrator, though a stammerer, harbors a secret poetic streak, so that when the prose occasionally swells itself up, the effect is never false, never grandiose. Here, for example, is Jason’s description of a valley at sunset: “The tulips are black plum, emulsion white, and yolky gold.” That middle metaphor, emulsion white, only just misses sounding false for this boy, especially set between two more concrete, familiar color-comparisons (plums, egg yolks). But it is a sign of how elastic and convincing the narrative voice is that we buy it.

There is a lot more to recommend Black Swan Green. There is a running parallel between war in the adult world, particularly the Falkland Islands war, and the sort of warring that teenage boys wage among themselves. There is Jason’s poignant struggle to hide his stammer, which he calls Hangman and which requires him to rephrase his thoughts constantly, often in mid-sentence. Mitchell also has fun conjuring up Thatcher-era England. Late-70’s pop bands (Kate Bush, Roxy Music, Fleetwood Mac) and other period flotsam (DeLoreans, the sinking of the Belgrano, the Millennium Falcon) all are mentioned. At one point Jason proclaims, “People’ll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world.” (Emphasis his.) But for me, the central achievement of Black Swan Green is its voice. It is unforgettable.

Which is why I am going to set it aside and get back to work on my own book. I’ll stick to novels with narrative voices closer to what I’m trying to achieve. Lately I’ve been rereading Rosellen Brown’s Before and After, Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, books written in a closely observed, restrained style that suits me at the moment. Novels that unblock me, that help me write. Sometime next spring, when I’m done writing, I’ll pick up Black Swan Green again.

But you should read it now.

I’ve gone on too long, so I’ll close with a question for my fellow novelists. I’ve written here about how hard it can be to write after reading a certain kind of book. Do you find it equally hard to read novels when you are in the process of writing one? For me, it is difficult to sink into the “extended dream” of a novel because I can’t extricate myself from the extended dream I am trying to compose — that is, I can’t escape my own imagination long enough to enter someone else’s. I read for a few pages, a scene or two, then I am struck with an intense desire to get back to my own novel-in-progress. How about you, novelists?
Visit William Landay's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Strangler.

--Marshal Zeringue