Rick Ollerman turned the tables on me in his interview last week: he asked me a question:
It does bring up an interesting question, though, one you probably have an opinion on yourself. Once you have several books under your belt, don’t you ever wonder if you really can change your voice or your style in any substantive way and still remain original? I wonder about that.
I almost responded with an editor’s note, but Twenty Questions interviews are already plenty long, and his question deserved more than a throwaway comment.
I probably think about style more than any other aspect of writing. I suppose this makes sense. As a reader I can forgive a multitude of sins in story, plot, some of character, and even of cohesiveness, so long as the writing itself grips me. This is why I so rarely enjoy best sellers: they don’t often have any style. (Unless “generically inoffensive” is a style. If it is, I don’t like it.)
I write because of Raymond Chandler. I “discovered” the Philip Marlowe stories a little over twenty years ago and thought trying to tell such a story would be great fun and a challenge to boot. I had no delusions about being that good—or any good, for that matter—but my music career had gone tits up and I needed to fill the hours I used to spend practicing. Writing was a good outlet, and I appeared to have some aptitude for it.
Chandler was, of course, a stylist more than anything. His characters tend to have similarities from book to book and his plots can be incomprehensible. I read him for how the words roll as much into my ears as my eyes. From him I discovered Robert B. Parker and rediscovered Mickey Spillane. Early on I realized I could open an unfamiliar book by an author I knew well to a random spot with characters I didn’t know and tell within a page who wrote it.
Writing about style, Chandler once said:
"The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off."
There are only so many stories. (Seven? Twelve? I forget.) All the rest are variations. What makes them stand apart? The manner of the telling. Style.
It’s not like an author can pick a style and be successful at it. Style chooses the writer as much as the writer chooses a style. I love the way Chandler and James Lee Burke fall on the ear, but I’d come across as a complete boob if I tried to imitate them. The Muse puts a voice in a writer’s head and the writer’s primary job is to identify and capture it, and shape it to suit his needs the best he can.
James M. Cain said:
I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hardboiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.
I make no conscious effort to write like Cain, either. (Good thing.) His philosophy holds for me. The Penns River books work, if they do, because I carry the patterns and rhythms of Western Pennsylvania speech within me as naturally as a fish breathes water. The Beloved Spouse spots it if we’ve been to visit my parents more than a day or two, my slipping back into the accent and rhythms as I hear them more around me. That’s where the style for the Penns River stories comes from. I might as well bring it back in a jar when I make one of my half dozen trips there each year.
Though I come from a working class background I have also circulated in white collar and upper class communities, largely as a result of my previous life as a classical musician. (Rich people are always happy to show themselves as “patrons of the arts” and can usually be depended on not to wear their condescension too much on their sleeves when mingling.) The working class are a lot more fun to talk with, or to listen to. Their manner of expression is just more interesting. That’s not to say they’re always right—a sizeable number of blue collar types are in the tank for Donald Trump, and that’s just stupid—but they’re a hell of a lot more entertaining, and their use of language doesn’t always make you feel as if you should keep one hand on your wallet. Frankly, I’m delighted my use of language tends to fall on that side of proper. My speech and grammar are much like Calvin Coolidge’s sense of humor: I can talk as good as anyone when I feel like it. I just don’t often feel like it.
How does all this address Rick’s question? “Once you have several books under your belt, don’t you ever wonder if you really can change your voice or your style in any substantive way and still remain original?” Not to get all Bill Clinton about it, but that depends on the definition of “change.” All styles evolve. (At least they should.) It’s a sign of growth, of the author expanding horizons looking for a better way to tell his or her stories. The stories matter, too. Telling a different kind of story often requires a different style in the telling.
My Penns River series has a different style than the Nick Forte books. It’s more than the difference in first-person vs. third-person point of view. Forte’s books allow for more introspection and maintain the same voice throughout because he’s telling you the story. You can’t see anything he doesn’t see, and you learn what’s important to him by what he tells you he sees and how he described it. Penns River books require a broader palette, as the reader gets inside different people’s heads and everyone is the hero of his own story.
My style has evolved within each series. I’m working on a Forte novel now, and let it lie fallow while I took a look at a Forte story from several years ago I’m getting ready to self-publish. Switching quickly from one to the other shows that, though I made a conscious effort to keep Forte’s voice the same, the newer book is much tighter. His descriptions are terser. I get in and out of scenes quicker. I’m good with that. If they were too much the same I wouldn’t be getting any better.
Back to Rick’s question, could I arbitrarily turn on a dime and write either Forte or Penns River in a completely different style? I doubt it. I could try, and it would be as original as anything else. It sure would suck, though.