Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who are You, and Why are You Thinking About Ballerinas?

A few weekends back, I burned through Tana French's first book, In the Woods. It's true that you should not judge a book by its cover, but you can sure as hell sell it. I'd planned to read it ever since I saw the cover image, which successfully conveys both a woodsy branchiness and the organic, creepy look of blood vessels.

The first book won several awards and got deservedly praised every which way, but it had--to my mind--one substantial flaw. The first person narrative occasionally veers to places that seem unbelievable for the character in question. He's Rob Ryan, a youngish homicide detective in Ireland, never finished college, obsessed with his job, troubled by a forgotten childhood trauma that may or may not be connected to his latest case. All well and good, and for the most part, French carries the voice off pretty well.

But every now and then, Ryan let slip a line or a thought that had me turning to the back jacket of the book to look French in the face. He compares the preparation for a murder investigation to the chaos that happens backstage as ballerinas wait for the curtain. He names the French musical piece that young ballet dancers are warming up to. All in all, for someone readers have been given no reason to think of as a ballet aficionado, he seems to know an awful lot about the world of toe shoes and nutcrackers.

While these moments were enough to make me stop reading and address a general, "WTF?" to the empty room, they were minor problems in an otherwise terrific book, and almost as soon as I finished the last page, I picked up French's second book, The Likeness. And there the voice problems ceased: In the second book, the narrative voice is no longer Ryan's, but his former partner's, a young female detective. In The Likeness, the plot is just as taut and the first-person voice comes off without a hitch.

The difference between the two books made me think about the trapdoors in that old writing class dictum: write what you know. I've always thought that it should be followed by a number of caveats, one of them being: unless the character you're creating doesn't have a clue about what you know, in which case, write what HE knows. French's bio says she trained as an actor; my guess is she may have encountered a bit of ballet over the years, but letting it drift into the consciousness of her male detective protagonist--without at least a throwaway line to explain how it might have got there--seemed a misstep.

It also made me think about the difficulty of believably inhabiting a demographic that's not yours--something I'm struggling with right now as I work on a story set in 1960s Mississippi in which the two central characters are a middle-aged black woman and an 8-year-old white boy. I figure, demographically, I've got a little connection to each of them, but I also keep thinking I have to know more, more, more about their lives and their worlds. I keep reading more about the civil rights movement, about life on the Gulf Coast, about what people wore and ate and where they worked and how they lived. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to drown in research and never actually write this story.

It reminds me of the writerly equivalent of that old apocryphal anecdote about Dustin Hoffman: Supposedly, while on the set of Marathan Man, method actor Hoffman, playing an exhausted college student on the run from Nazi war criminals, was staying up late and exercising himself sick to get himself looking and feeling the part. His co-star, Laurence Olivier, saw this miserable wreck dragging itself onto the set each day and expressed concern; when Hoffman explained what he was doing, Olivier said acidly, "Try acting, dear boy; it's so much easier." (If you want to get a sense of how Hoffman took this advice, this photo pretty much says it all.)

I think the opposite is true. Sometimes I know I'm researching just to avoid putting pen to paper. I plan to post this photo above my desk as encouragement.