Memoir hangs 100% on voice.
It's hard to believe that it took me so long to discover the work of Mary Karr. Karr is professor of writing at Syracuse University and her programmes are desperately over-subscribed. Yes, she is that good.
I first discovered her memoir, The Liar's Club, when it was recommended to me by a therapist, impressed by the way Mary managed to write to candidly and yet without indulgence about her dysfunctional childhood.
As I read, sure, I was delighted to see how she tackled the subject matter, but more than anything I was blown away by her style. Here was a writer who broke the rules, finished sentences with prepositions and had a tone that was completely her own.
After The Liar's Club I headed straight for Karr non-fiction book, The Art of Memoir, and it was here that I read the words:
"Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself onto the page What drives them crazy will keep you humble. You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention."
In other words, you have to be true to yourself, your meaning and your story and the way you write must reflect this.
I went on from The Liar's Club to read Karr's second memoir, Lit, which tells of her failed marriage, her battle with alcoholism and the jerky progression of her career as a writer. Let me give you an example of her voice, found on the page that faced me when I cracked open Lit's spine at a random place:
"By age thirty, I'm not writing squat, which I blame on my ramped-up consulting schedule, knowing full well my favorite poet was a full-time insurance exec. Warren keeps urging me to deal with my complicated family on the page, but that seems too damp-eyed, though even I know the crap I crank out referring to Homer and Virgil is pretentious before Warren carefully pens pretentious on page bottom."
You see what I mean about voice? Sure, it's about what you write about, but it also about how you say it. If you are still confused, go read Mary Karr.
This month I want to introduce you to someone with whom, tragically, it is no longer possible for you to connect with. I first ‘met’ Lindsay de Feliz in 2011 when she contacted us to see if we might be interested in publishing her memoir called What About Your Saucepans? At first glance I thought it was a bit of an odd title, but when Lindsay went on to tell me it was about her move from a high-powered, well-paid job in England to become a lowly diving instructor in the Dominican Republic and how she had fallen in love with her life, the island and a local called Danilo. I was intrigued and asked to see a sample of her writing. I soon learned a number of things: this woman had a story to tell that was stranger and stronger than fiction; that she needed my help as a mentor and Jane’s help as editor to knock it into shape; that I really liked her and wanted to work with her; that “What about your saucepans?” was what her mother had said to her when Lindsay told her she was leaving the UK almost two decades earlier.
Over the next year or so she worked like a beaver on the manuscript while her real life began to get curiouser and curiouser. She had married a handsome local and became a generous and loving mother to his children, some of whom were very young indeed. Not only did she open her arms and her home to a new family but soon a four-legged family of stray cats and dogs joined the fold. Danilo became involved in local politics, ran for major and the two became affected by so much corruption the they were forced to run for the hills and into hiding. The book came out and we kept her quirky title, soon realising that Lindsay was embracing social media big time and many people now talked fondly of the Saucepans Lady, like me, they had never met but came to consider a friend. Her online marketing was second-to-none and sales were steady. By 2017 a sequel was inevitable as we followed Lindsay to her half-built Pink House in a tiny village beside the woods. Life After My Saucepans was published in 2017.
Her life was always complicated and chaotic but Lindsay, who temporarily lost her voice after being shot in the throat during a break-in in book one, continued to see the funny side of life and her readers loved her more with every word and blog she wrote.
This post is in tribute to a dear author who was brutally murdered in December. Lindsay's body was wrapped in bags used for pet food and buried in a shallow grave in the woods beside The Pink House.
I want to thank Lindsay for the joy she was to work with, the joy she gave to her many readers and the love she gave to so many.
And if I have a takeaway for you, learned from the last eight years with Lindsay it is that a bonkers title is not always a stupid idea. If it is catchy, or ‘sticky’ as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book The Tipping Point, then that is always a good thing.
In memory of Lindsay, Summertime and Springtime authors will be funding a one-time bursary towards publishing an expat memoir. Further details to follow in early 2020.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer