The other night Ana and I drove a few hours to go hear two of the UK’s finest mystery writers, Sophie Hannah and Tana French, read from their newest novels and answer questions. They were both amazing—personable, hilarious, generous, brimming over with intriguing insights into their own processes. For me, the most illuminating moment came later, after the talks, as we filed past with newly-purchased copies for them to sign, and had the briefest chance to engage one-on-one.
Ana and I had both just discovered Tana French a few short months ago, and both fell head over heels in love with her writing.
Here and there, in her novels, you come to a passage that is so transcendently powerful, time seems to stop, the storyline suspends in midair, and the writing becomes something like a prose-poem, majestically lyrical, rhapsodic, but also with the punch-packing power of a cannon shot.
After reading one of those passages, we would both feel like putting the book down and wandering about in a daze, just letting it soak in. The world would look different; it was almost as if we understood the world better, or some human-nature piece of it. Like you couldn’t go back to who you were before you read that passage.
It happens in the very opening of her first book, In the Woods, and in the very ending of her third, The Likeness, and every so often in the midst of the narrative in all of them.
For both of us, these particular passages had an impact that will never leave us. They left us gasping.
So I asked Tana about that.
“How does that work?” I asked. “Do you know you need this particular kind of passage when you reach that point, and just set about writing it? Or do bits and pieces of it come to you at odd points in the process, even way out of sequence, and you write them down and save them, knowing you’ll need them later, or insert them earlier?”
“This is going to sound something like synesthesia,” she said, and it felt like even as she spoke, she was working out exactly how to explain something she’d wondered about herself.
“I’ll say this, I know that something needs to happen.”
Something. I totally got it. There was so much freight in that word. Something … like something big, too big for words, or at least, too big for easy words and quick description. Something that’s going to take great care in the translation of it into words. (It reminded me a little of that great phrase of John Irving’s, from A Widow for One Year, “It was the sound of something trying not to make a sound.”)
“… I know that something needs to happen,” Tana was saying, “and that it has a certain shape.”
It’s not, “I know this has to happen to that character,” or, “we have to set the mood and establish the place,” or, “we need a plot twist / to pick up the pace / something shocking.”
No. It’s more vague than that, and at the same time more important than that. Something needs to happen, and it has a certain shape — a feel, a weight, a depth. It has a not-yet-defined significance. I don’t yet know what it looks like, sounds like, or reads like on the outside … but I know what the inside of it feels like.
“So,” Tana went on, “I’ll store up pieces of it, sometimes it’s no more than adjectives. Yeah?”
That’s not verbatim what she said, but close, and while she said a bit more after that, I don’t remember the rest. She’d already said enough. That captured it perfectly.
This lady writes about things from the inside of them. The reason you can tell that’s so is that when you read it, that’s where it lands.
P.S. synesthesia: the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body. Like when you hear a smell, or feel a sound.
When you come down to it, isn’t all writing synesthesia?