Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Kathy Hoyle’s fiction piece, Shh, Bairn
John: The thing that immediately leaps out at you about this piece is the strong and unexpected voice. How did this come to you?
Kathy: The dialect and idiom of both characters are linked to my hometown. I was born and bred in the North East of England, ‘bairn’ is the most commonly used term for baby or child, and we always naturally use the term ‘Mam’ not mum or mom. It sounds very natural to my own ear but I’m aware the language is a little unusual to others and I like that effect. I think we can all dash our work beautifully with cultural language and phrasing to give stories an added level of authenticity.
The narrative voice was a surprise to me too! this poor young woman had regressed after a brutal attack, so I used sharp, unfinished, unfiltered, angry sentences to demonstrate her confusion and fear but other than consciously doing that, the voice seemed to come through loud and clear without any help from me. We often think it’s a bit of cliché when we hear writers say ‘ Oh, the story wrote itself,’ but in this case it really did fall onto the page.
Was it difficult putting yourself into this character’s head? And how do you feel about the old creative writing dictum that we should only write what we know?
I think it was uncomfortable to imagine how this character might ‘feel’. I’m always trying to strive for emotional resonance, both with the reader and the characters I create but this one was tough because thankfully, I’ve never personally experienced anything so horrific. In this case, I tried to focus on the confusion, the jarring, sensory details that would be disorientating and distressing for the character, ‘Hair dragged, pulled. Mouth hurts. Arms too. Hurt moves down and under and in. It stings and tears and pushes.’ …And steer away from any internal dialogue or emotional processing because the character herself was unable to do that. Unusually for me, I kept the focus on the surface of the story.
Should we only write what we know? God no! Well, if so, I’d only be writing stories about suburban mums on the school run!
Writing is ultimately about expression, our response to the world around us and often deep examination of our own subconscious, the more open we are to ALL of those things, the more ways we can find to express ourselves. Research thoroughly, be mindful, be respectful, be culturally aware, but never be afraid to explore.
And if we stray away from writing what we know (as I think we have clearly done here) do you think that, like method actors, authors have to feel the pain of their characters in order for them to feel real?
As I’ve mentioned above, I did try to imagine how my character felt. I think you can spend a little time doing this, but it would be thoroughly exhausting to try and process every feeling of every character you create through your own self. As with anything, less is more. Research can provide you with an insight into, say, in this case, survivors of trauma. You can read someone else’s account and feel empathy and choose to convey that in your stories without having to feel the pain of that trauma yourself. Stephanie Carty has written the fantastic ‘Inside fictional minds,’ (Ad Hoc Fiction) which is a brilliant craft book to help write complex characters. I find it really useful when I’m trying to understand how a character might process and react to trauma and pain, or conversely emanate joy and hope.
As fiction writers, do we have any responsibility to our characters? Or, since we made them up, can we torment them however we please?
Um this is a tricky one! I think we have more of a responsibility to our readers than our characters. If you know you’re going to be writing something that might cause shock and pain for the reader, you might want to think about how you present that work. Are you willing to give the reader a little breathing space? Could you come at a story sideways or through metaphor or in the case of ‘Shh, Bairn’ use a child’s POV to make that story less brutal for the reader. You do have that choice as a writer.
With regards to applying that to the character, I think it can depend somewhat on the genre. We tend to get away with being incredibly cruel to our characters in more humorous stories. In some of my fantasy stories I have mischievous mermaids, man-eating snakes, even a grandma-eating dragon, and that’s great fun! I don’t feel guilty about that at all!