I’ve long been intrigued by authors’ creative choices, so I’m always grateful for glimpses of the process involved in the birth of a novel. Examples of such glimpses might include: how Marilynne Robinson constructed the character of John Ames in her wise and lyrical Gilead – of which she speaks in a Paris Review interview; where the roots of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard are to be found – which transpire from his Places Of My Infancy; or how Vladimir Nabokov arrived at the voice of the eponymous protagonist of Pnin – as revealed in the autobiographical Speak, Memory. Of course the books hold their own as narratives – I don’t need more, in order to enjoy and appreciate them – but insights into the inspirations, challenges and decisions behind them never fail to enrich the experience for me with the unique perspective they offer.
So I thought readers might be interested to know how I had reached one of the key decisions for any novel: that of narrative form, which impacts how we respond to a text. That Summer in Puglia is in dramatic monologue form, which is rarely used in novels, unlike in poetry and drama. So why, you might ask, did I opt for it?
First, it may be helpful to clarify a couple of common sources of confusion. A dramatic monologue is a variant of first-person narrative. It’s distinct from interior monologue, as it involves the narrator speaking to an interlocutor, or ‘narratee’. Interior monologue tends to give readers access to the narrator’s uncensored thoughts, including those unlikely to be divulged to anyone. By contrast, narrators in dramatic monologues may or may not state facts and opinions – purposely or unwittingly.
This means that as readers we find ourselves in the interlocutor’s seat: it’s for us to shift between one moment judging the narrator’s actions, intentions and reliability, and the next empathising with him or her, as if we were listening to a human being sitting right across the table. That quality can give rise to a drawback: the tension between judging and empathising means that stretches of absorption in the protagonist’s narration will alternate with moments of distance from it as we seek to read ‘between the lines’ of what is being asserted and omitted. The author has to fine-tune this alternation of intensity and detachment – which often coincides with that of past events and of the present-tense ‘frame’ – in order to avoid the flow being interrupted too often for the reader.
The narrator’s voice involves many considerations too, such as: how can his tone and register convey his character and background? (I’ll use the pronoun ‘he’ on this blog post, as my protagonist is a man.) How should it change to reflect his evolution from the first to the final page? And that of his relationship with the interlocutor? And to signal when he is in control and when instead the intensity of re-living past events makes him barely aware of the other’s presence? I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence to attempt a novel in dramatic monologue form, and to persevere, without the encouragement and feedback of great writers on my MA at Goldsmiths – I mean ‘great’ in every sense: admirably able, for sure; but also insightful, generous, enthusiastic… Writing may be solitary, but few communities involve the closeness and trust which comes with mutually exposing your work for constructive criticism.
So why did I go for the dramatic monologue form for That Summer in Puglia? Recklessness? Too much time on my hands? (I wish!) The challenge? None of these. After experimenting at length with third-person narration, I opted for dramatic monologue because of its coherent linking of several aspects of the work.
I wanted Tommaso’s narration to expose not only his own fragility, but also that of the young private investigator, Will, as the latter’s tale eventually emerges. I was both encouraged and intimidated by the fact that also the narrator in The Fall senses that the narratee has a secret, and yet that Camus leaves it undisclosed. However, I soon realised that his interlocutor has to be faceless because the eponymous fall is that of humankind – the canvas couldn’t be larger. In my novel, Will has to be an individual for at least two reasons: his story accounts for why only he has succeeded in tracking down a man long presumed dead; and he and Tommaso offer each other real possibilities of positive transformation – at real cost, and demanding real choice. By contrast, the name of Camus’ protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, hints at clemency and salvation but he entraps his prey without mercy.
I thought a dramatic monologue would be ideal for a narrator who, despite his knowledge of the ancient world, is only now engaging in an overdue ‘excavation’ of his past: his unreliability would heighten the tension between sympathy and judgment. Readers could identify with the empathetic listener, who catalyses and facilitates Tommaso’s growing awareness of the actual course of past events. Ostensibly, Tommaso longs for Will to let him go, but his unconscious yearning runs deeper: at stake is his chance to come to terms with his past and to move on. The dramatic monologue form had two further merits: it conveys a sense of isolation; and it plays on the irony that it is a dialogue of which readers ‘hear’ only one side, while Tommaso unwittingly caused a tragedy by denying others the opportunity for dialogue.
In an excellent article about his writing of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid points to the dramatic monologue’s power to engage readers as ‘co-creators’ because it prompts us to develop our own versions of the characters and events: they reflect our personal perspective when we fill in the gaps, make connections or interpret the action.
To help readers settle into the role of ‘co-creators’, I needed to put them in the position of inferring what Will is saying and doing at specific points. I therefore studied rhetorical devices used in dramatic monologues (e.g. Browning’s My Last Duchess, in addition to The Fall and The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and other relevant forms (e.g. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Julian Barnes’ Talking it Over, Rousseau’s Confessions). In none of the former did the authors develop the narratee’s own story arc (Camus and Hamid hint at his background/occupation). However, there was no doubt in my mind that my novel’s coherence demanded it. In the event, some of it flowed intuitively as I got to know my characters, while feedback from tutors and colleagues was invaluable in identifying and addressing sections where the information to be conveyed about Will presented a tougher challenge. I think Camus or Hamid would have chosen to do the same, had the stories they were telling required it – but theirs called for different sets of creative decisions and solutions.
I considered but eventually sacrificed metafictional opportunities, in order to keep readers immersed in the realism of Tommaso’s narration. I aimed for ‘solidity of specification’ and for psychological truthfulness. The multi-sensorial rendering of the settings, for example, is based on my own experience and research. I consulted books, maps and videos, and took photographs and notes. I walked in-situ like a ‘Method actor’, striving to take in the landscape through the filter of the protagonist’s perception. Psychological truthfulness came largely intuitively, but some aspects of it were enhanced by reading and by others’ feedback.
Tommaso’s language is characterised by the formality of his Italian linguistic roots, and by the faintly archaic tone of foreigners who learnt much of their English from literature. As part of my research, I attended a one-day translation masterclass held by Tim Parks, in order to become aware of linguistic idiosyncrasies which would impact Tommaso’s tone and register – unlike him, I did not learn English as an adult, but have been bilingual since my early teens. I also fine-tuned Tommaso’s use of emotionally charged key words. For example, he says ‘my father’ when he begins talking about him, but then repeatedly slips into ‘Dad’ and ‘Daddy’. For the handling of his lapses into Italian, I referred to Simonetta Wenkerts’ The Sunlit Stage and Marina Warner’s The Lost Father.
These are just a few glimpses into an aspect of writing and into the creative process behind That Summer in Puglia. I hope you’ll have found them interesting, whether you’re a fellow author or reader.
Giotto’s The Seven Virtues – Lady Justice, by The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. Reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License.
The Ephebe, made available by Carlo Raso under CC License.