For those of you coming here for the first time, welcome, and I hope it won’t be the last. For my regular readers, you may have noticed over the months that I’ve developed a fascination for storytelling – I say “developed” like it were something new; it’s more a case of me having studied the idea via my blog posts, by putting it into writing.
As far as literature is concerned, over the years, I’ve frequently debated with fellow-readers my love for first-person narrative – I’ve also felt a little awkward doing so, and always will; as with all things, I like books to be in their place (read a previous blog post on books and education), otherwise it feels a tad self-indulgent. I come off a loser more often than not, for being outnumbered by lovers of the omniscient author: those of us who prefer the narrator to have power to delve in and out of the characters’ minds at will, so as to keep we readers in the loop.
I tend to be misinterpreted a lot, too, in the course of these debates, leaving people with the impression I’m all black and white: that I’ll only read books narrated in first-person.
Furthermore, I do appreciate the arguments for third-person, and I’ve sometimes read third-person books which, afterwards, have had me believe I read them in the first, whereby each narrator has portrayed a particular character so skilfully that I think I’ve come to know that character, and so judged the events from his/her point of view.
All I would like to say for this blog post, regarding first-person narrative, is that I am simply more intrigued by what I don’t know about characters. We can never truly discern what a character – fictional or real-life – is thinking at any given moment, without s/he endeavouring to explain. Which, then, prompts the questions:
In a novel, how do characters, excluding the narrator, perceive other characters and events?
Each of them would have a different story to tell.
How, then, do other characters regard the narrator?
Each would depict him/her quite differently.
Mmm. What, then, is a narrator not telling us? About people, situations and events past and present – even without telling lies or bending the truth?
– it would appear my questions are becoming rhetorical.
We might ask further, how does a narrator perceive certain people, situations and events, and why? In other words, how does a narrator want to see them?
Still not convinced? Have I at least got you thinking? Here’s a last question – I didn’t set out to interview you: it’s one thing to wonder how a first-person narrator sees him/herself, but how does that narrator want you, the reader, to see him or her?
These ideas fascinate me regarding first-person narrative. All the more when writing my debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J. As a consequence, in this blog post, I’d like to get to know more about Phillip Rowlings, the first-person narrator.
You may think it odd, a writer not knowing his own creation, but I believe that is one of the reasons for which we write, in our endeavours to make sense of the world.
Writing the book, I’ve found that I don’t know Phillip Rowlings any more than you will reading it. And besides, had I believed I knew him from the outset, maybe I wouldn’t have written about him. And so, in order to try and get to know him that bit better, I – CR – am going to throw a few questions his way, in the hope of being more enlightened.
And you’ll then, possibly, be intrigued enough to buy the book, too.
* * * * *
CR: ‘I can’t begin to tell you, Phillip, how times have changed since your day – which, admittedly, I’ve not yet worked out if it’s for better or worse. But without giving me one-word answers – because I know how up-or-down you can be, and that it’s all going to depend on which of the two Phillips has turned up – could you tell me a bit about how you see living in the north of England in 1978, and what makes you tick?’
Phillip: ‘You’ve read Wood, Talc and Mr. J and you don’t know what makes me tick?’
CR: ‘Tell me a bit about life before Wood, Talc and Mr. J.’
Phillip: ‘Mmm, it’s all very black and white, really.’
CR: ‘You don’t say! Sorry, I don’t mean to embarrass you; but it’s just how I’ve described you in the synopsis… You’re shyer than I expected you to be, though.’
Phillip: ‘Yeah, and I don’t know if that’s the best way to be, I’m still trying to work it out. My dad reckons so, with his “humility is next to godliness”, ’heard that one more than once. But he’s got me calling my boss by his last name: Mr. Alcrap. And I’m not sure he deserves it; I think he’s exploiting it, but I’ve taken that road now, so… I feel like I can’t stand up for myself anymore, if I ever could. In my dad’s world, only he can ever be right; he has this way of saying things, and you believe him while ever he’s there; he’s so persuasive…’
CR: ‘So how do you see it, from back there, in ’78 and before?’
Phillip: ‘Well, I’m kind of scared of gettin’ old, I…’
CR: ‘You’re seventeen!’
Phillip: ‘Yeah, I just don’t want to get much older. I want things to stay as they are. I know people say you have your whole life ahead of you but… Either that or I want it to be the early 70s again; I want those Motown tunes to be all comin’ out for the first time; there was somethin’ about those summers, they were magical… But at the same time, in winter I’d walk the streets and cry… I hated stopping in that much, but other kids seemed to be okay with it, and I hated the dark streets, colourless; housing estates, I dunno…’
CR: ‘Has that gotten better, being seventeen?’
Phillip: ‘Yeah, but only to a degree. There’s the pub, but then there’s approaching twenty; I just can’t imagine it. I can’t ever imagine being married; ’can’t imagine finding anybody.’
CR: ‘We all feel that way at that age…’
Phillip: ‘I’ll be doing all-nighters when I’m 35!’
CR: ‘You and your Northern Soul music. You don’t strike me as anyone with much ambition. ’Not meaning to embarrass you again, and I won’t ask you one of those awful questions, like they do in interviews, you know: ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’’
Phillip: ‘Do they?’
CR: ‘Oh, you’ll see. But I gather you hate your factory job. Have you ever thought of doing anything else?’
Phillip: ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m on a roller coaster, and I can’t get off; like my future’s been worked out by someone else. I couldn’t take school too seriously. And I can’t even say I was easily led, it was like there was only ever ‘the now’, I had to enjoy it while I could. I wouldn’t even wear my teeth-brace at school, which would’ve straightened my teeth, because I didn’t want people – girls – to see it. I wish I’d worn it now…’
CR: ‘So what did you want to do in life?’
Phillip: ‘’Don’t know. Escape. Live on a beach on the east coast. That’s it. You know, my dad could get so upset about coming home from holidays, and I just wonder now… you know… I’m looking for something in life, I just don’t know what it is… But I hope it won’t be here, I can’t imagine it. I hate this place, mostly, this existence!’
CR: ‘What do the others think of you, your gang; your Soul people?’
Phillip: ‘We’d die for each other. You can’t understand that, cos you’re either into Soul music or you’re not, you can’t describe it to someone. Going to Wigan Casino, I suppose it’s like going to church, only much greater. In fact, that’s how we call it.’
CR: ‘All of you?’
Phillip: ‘Yeah. Some of us smile when we say it, but we mean it…’
CR: ‘And how do you feel about things politically? I mean, there’ve been all sorts of upheavals in your decade, haven’t there? Three-day weeks, strikes here, there and everywhere. Do you envisage a first woman-prime minister? As in Margaret Thatcher?’
Phillip: ‘Maybe, yeah. No. I know who she is, but I can’t really get my head round it. People hate her at work, but I can’t seem to take any of it in, I couldn’t care less, I’m too busy, longing for the weekend. My dad can’t make his mind up about any of it anyway, but rants both ways.
CR: ‘How do you see your best friend’s drug problem?’
CR: ‘Jed ’s drug problem, as I’ve worked out reading the book?’
Phillip: ’Not sure it’s a problem, Jed can handle anythin’. He has this sense of humour that – God, I hate saying this, so please keep it to yourself, but, I sometimes get scared of stuff, and maybe that’s why I don’t take that many drugs; that and the fact my mum and dad, well, I just couldn’t do it to them, couldn’t hurt ’em… Besides I think my dad would kill me… Then again… But Jed, he kind of fears nothing; he can just burst into laughter, even if he’s about to get his head kicked in, and people just let him off…
CR: ‘Do you want to be Jed? I honestly don’t want to embarrass you, but you can tell me. Would you say you love him?’
Phillip: ‘How do you mean? I love women…’
CR: ‘No, but you can love him in a different way….
CR: ‘Okay, what about Nathalie, you’ve only just met her, with regard to this interview – I’ve picked you out in the first part of the book… No need to worry, you do live. So, Nathalie. Could you love her?’
Phillip: ‘It’s kind of… that roller coaster thing again: I just don’t feel like any of it’s in my hands, if I’m honest. Maybe I already do love her, but I love Soul music, and do the all-nighters, and you can’t have both, it’s what we’re about. I know I keep saying this, but you could never understand…’
CR: ‘Funny, you use quite a bit of roller coaster imagery in your story; I’ve talked about your recurring themes in the synopsis. But who says you can’t do both, your friends? Jed, who? And are you intimidated by her background, since she’s very middle-class?’
Phillip: ‘No-one says it, it just is! And no, she could never intimidate me… No. She’s mad about me.’
CR: ‘So where do you see the sequel, if ever there’s to be a sequel?
Phillip: ‘Well, hopefully, it’ll be about me still being young. If I do end up writing about me being 35 or something, I only hope things won’t have changed too much. Except me living by the sea of course. I could do portraits for holidaymakers… Landscapes…’
CR: ‘Thanks, Phillip, I think I’ll end it there, while we’re winning. And you’ve argued your points with vigour – I’m not so sure I agree with all you say, or claim to understand it all, but then, as you yourself state; me being an outsider… But it’s been interesting.’
Phillip: ‘Thanks. Keep The Faith, as we say!’
* * * * *
I’m not sure what you made of it. I’ve come away not so much enlightened as feeling I’ve at least scratched the surface – I don’t know what I expected but, actually, I’m looking forward to a second interview all the more; Phillip wears a mask at best, I feel, and there’s so much more going on, between the words on the page, than meets the eye…
And Phillip is a character of the present, looking back to then, to those heady days. Does today’s Phillip see things as they were? Or does he want you to see things his way? Or make a compromise? Or does he hope you’ll pick up on his irony and see it all for yourself? One last question: whatever Phillip’s viewpoint, will all depend on you, the individual reader? Will your reading be dictated by just where you are, figuratively speaking, in life?
But isn’t it fascinating stuff? Sorry, I didn’t mean to ask any more questions.
Once Wood, Talc and Mr. J is released, which is going to be very soon, I’ll interview Phillip again. It’ll be an ‘open – ongoing – post, whereby you, the reader, will also have the opportunity to ask him questions, as many as you like. And I hope you’ll enjoy the book enough to want to do so.
Thanks for reading.
Your literary, soulful friend