Conversations Across Time

An investigation into how the art of conversation can inform the practices of a novelist.

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To write a book is to enter into a conversation with a reader across time. The difference between a real-time conversation and a story is that there are no immediate responses from your reader, and your reader is not singular or a few people gathered around a table, but potentially many people at different tables, on different sofas, in different beds, and across different centuries. This doesn’t prevent the fundamentals of a good conversation from applying. The difference is that you won’t know anything particular about your reader: you can’t reference what happened to their cat last Tuesday or to their mother-in-law at the deli counter on Wednesday. There’ll also be no immediate feedback, aside from what you can garner from writing groups and beta readers. This doesn’t prevent you from connecting, but you need to connect in a more universal – a blurrier – way.

But why call it a conversation and not simply the telling of a story? I call it a conversation for a number of reasons. For a story to be successful it must contain not only a subject of interest, but be something with which the reader connects. Like a conversation, you could be sharing the most exact facts about the most interesting of subjects, but poorly delivered to the person who you are in conversation with, or without any points at which they can identify a way to connect with the subject matter, the conversation is one sided, and a bore to be a part of.

To expand this idea of a conversation and to identify ways in which you might already be doing this, think about intertextuality. It is a conversation between books across time, which is often considered a high-minded exercise befitting of writers like James Joyce. This doesn’t mean it needs to be an intellectual joke, it can simply be common ground between reader and writer. This is certainly why Pixar feature so many pastiches in their children’s films – to entertain and connect with the parents. It can also be why readers enjoy seeing their favourite characters return time and again in a book series: once characters have been introduced, they become a point of shared history and interest for the writer *and* reader.

Thinking about a story otherwise, as a one-sided conversation, prioritizes the writer’s interests and leads fiction in the direction of a lecture. Readers do not pick up a book to be lectured to. They pick up a book to relax, to be mentally stimulated, to be excited, the same reasons they engage in conversation.

Like any conversation there are things that will engage as well as topics and approaches that will tire. Learning to write is about learning to engage. What is it that draws people to a story? Familiarity is one side of this, but dig deeper. There are a number of ways to do this. You might consider how other writers have achieved engagement by looking at the stories that have an ongoing appeal throughout time, or more immediately on the Amazon charts, or short-listed for the Booker Prize, and so on.

This is a good approach but it takes time and consideration to distill from novels the things that have held readers’ attention above and beyond the writing style. Or, at least finding things which are reproducible and don’t lead to becoming derivitive.

An alternative is looking to the news, which provides clearer indicators, and there you will find stories that surround uncertainty and fears, tales about crime, politics, infidelity, the search for cures, families in crisis, celebrity struggles with exes, salcious accusations. And these all come from one glance across the daily headlines.

You could pile this all into a book and you might find success with a clickbait narrative. Or you could use this knowledge in more subtle ways to understand the way in which the human brain is engaged by topics and use this to infuse your narrative and sustain your readers. Either way it is useful to help understand the way in which universal themes continue to interest people.

Beyond the news, history is a good indicator of what interests people as well. They want to understand how we have arrived at this point in time. The things that have anchored society and made possible our lives. This is why historical fiction and historical documentaries flourish. And each return to history gives space for a reinterpretation, making it endlessly fresh.

I recently had my stock views on Oliver Cromwell challenged by someone who knew far about the Lord Protector than me. He explained Cromwell’s political and economic prowess, and I was entranced by his reasoning, because it stands counter to the typical narrative students of literature carry with them of him being a killjoy and a negative force for the arts.

I had to admit mine was a lazy narrative, ill-informed by any in-depth reading. At the same time, it is a useful narrative for understanding the way in which literature works: Cromwell objected to obscenity and ‘scurrilous jests’, but rather than remove the offending material – the route that Dr Thomas Bowdler would later take with Shakespeare – the Puritan parliament forced the closure the theatres entirely in 1642.

If I now ask you whether you would rather have no theatre or watch a bowdlerised version of Shakespeare, you might be tempted to opt for the latter. If you did so, I would respond that the act bowdlerising (“removing improper or offensive language”), which is commonly considered to weaken the works in question, equally kills off literature because it kills the conversation.

The reason works are weakened when bowdlerised is because the elemenet deemed improper and offensive is often the connecting feature between humans and if removed the work becomes dull. This is not to state that all works of fiction must be filled with crude sexual references, but rather if the point of human connection and interest is removed from a work, no matter which form this takes, then the work collapses because the conversation becomes flat.

The challenge for the writer is to inflate their work with human interest, but this comes with a warning – on which I wish to end – not to let it overcrowd; a simple example is humour. The comedy of a piece can elevate and be a prime point of human connection but a work can equally be deadened by joke after joke and those grins can quickly turn into grimaces.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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