In anticipation of our workshop, Finding Your Voice — And Point of View, we were able to get a quick word from our great instructor Greg Garrett for a quick Q&A about that search for your narrative voice. Greg’s class is on September 28th from 10 am to 1 pm at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin.
How did you develop your writing voice?
Greg Garrett: I was one of those writers who was (and is!) very influenced by the things I read, and so a big part of my learning my most authentic voice was figuring out who I wasn’t. So as I grew as a writer, I tried on John Irving and Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and none of them, of course, was a perfect fit. But I was also chiseling away at that block of stone where my own voice was waiting to be revealed, and finding who I was as a writer partly by figuring out who I wasn’t. There were things that I kept, though, from all of those writers, because different as they were, there was something that sounded like me. Finally, I met the works of North Carolina novelist T. R. Pearson, a discursive and truly Southern narrative voice—whose work was so ridiculously over the top that I finally felt I had the permission to be long-winded and digressive if I needed to be—and sometimes in my first couple of novels, I did.
Where do you find your inspiration for connecting with your writing voice?
GG: I normally spend a lot of time in the gestation phase of a novel, and often the novel starts with a line or two that I’ve heard and then wondered what came next. What that means is that for me, fiction is often voice-centered, and grows out of how I hear the story in my head. In Free Bird, my first novel, once I heard the first sentence or two, I wanted to know who was speaking, and what was going to happen to him. I liked that voice, even though I wasn’t sure I could trust the person speaking.
In The Prodigal, which is a radically different voice because it’s my first novel not in first person, I had a similar experience. I got that first line: “Jack Chisholm woke slowly from the old dream that he had been walking the beach with his father, hand in hand.” The Prodigal is a retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and that first line broke my heart, which is always a good place for a writer to find him or herself at the beginning of the process of composition. I knew I’d found a voice that was honest, and that would serve to honor my co-author, Brennan Manning.
What is one word of advice you have for a writer struggling to find their narrative voice?
GG: W. P. Kinsella told us in a class at Iowa that a good narrative voice should be as distinct as a unique speaking voice: “You should be able to recognize a strong voice across a crowded bar room!”
Could you tell us a little bit about your new novel The Prodigal?
GG: My agent asked me last spring to consider writing a novel with the best-selling writer Brennan Manning. We agreed on the story we wanted to tell, and my responsibility was then to develop something true to our concept and to Brennan’s teachings about grace and forgiveness, which had been taken to heart by over a million readers. Our protagonist is Jack, a megachurch pastor with a national audience who gets caught in a sex scandal and is drinking himself to death in Mexico when his estranged father arrives to take him home to the Texas Hill Country.
For me the real story is always in what happens AFTER the end of our favorite stories. What happens after Harry declares his love to Sally? What happens after the Father forgives the Prodigal and welcomes him home? So: what do things look like the next day—and the day after that? I wanted to write a novel about the only kind of characters I care about—badly broken—to see how Jack would find a new way of living, loving, and serving, and I could not be more excited about the way the book turned out. The Prodigal is a fall lead title from an imprint of HarperCollins, and received a rare starred review in Publishers Weekly just a few weeks ago. That fine Hill Country brewery Real Ale is sponsoring the launch party Nov. 11 at BookPeople, and we’ll have live music from me and the great Dave Insley, a reading from The Prodigal, and I’ll sign books. I hope my friends from the League will drop by for a Fireman’s 4, words, and music!
Greg Garrett, Ph.D., is a long-time friend of WLT. He is the author or co-author of over fifteen books, including the new novel The Prodigal with Brennan Manning, and is an award-winning professor of creative writing at Baylor University. BookPeople will be holding a launch party for his new book on Monday, November 11th at 7 PM. For more information on the book launch party, please visit http://www.bookpeople.com/event/greg-garrett.