“They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it.” (Kirsty Gunn)
A few posts ago, Sarah of Edgeofevening left a comment about Kirsty Gunn’s novella, Rain. Something I’d written about the novella I have recently begun (The Marriage of Rivers) reminded her of Rain. I’d read Gunn’s The Keepsake but not Rain — so I ordered it immediately. It’s a wonderful book, brief, lyrical, and also dense at the same time. Dense with weather, with emotional tension, and with an almost mythic dread. It’s the size it needs to be for its plot — quite simple, yet as inevitable as rain. And as lasting in the mind and heart. (I’m listening to rain now, a welcome sound after a long dry stretch; it patters on the metal roof and the way it smells, mixed with woodsmoke — because you need a fire on a wet morning — is something I’d like to bottle and dab behind my ears.)
In a talk given at the International Conference of Virginia Woolf Studies at the University of Glasgow in 2011, Kirsty Gunn commented on her writing process:
“What I know I am writing – are sentences. That’s what I am really confronting when I am at work on a piece of fiction – not the idea of story at all, but rather the sentence that sits on the page before me. And in the end, more than any cultural doubts about the relevance of fiction’s form and content, it’s my own inability ever to leave the sentence behind…That makes me wonder sometimes how I might get any books finished at all.
Those sentences, for me, are the fiction. They are its stuff and scent and touch and ballast. They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it. They are, these lines of words, the present tense of writing, and each one holds me in the now of making, these sentences – various, textured, new – full of smoothnesses and bits, what is known and unknown, the lovely and the shocking…So they keep me sifting through their endless possibilities, while out there somewhere is the idea of the project to which they belong, the book with its title, the story with its name…Nevertheless it is, for me, these sentences of mine that, ok, along with “the overall sense of a shape keep one at it.”
That shape is important, of course. I share with Woolf the sense of it being a kind of act of faith to “keep at it”, to keep finding the sentences that will move the fiction to find its place in the general scheme of things, be true to one’s idea of aesthetic and of form. For without that – significance – sentences would be all I would have…”
This is true of my own work. There’s a sentence, which carries with it a music, a rhythm, and that leads to the next, as a phrase of music suggests another. And those sentences will speak to one another as much as to a reader — who at that point is unimagined in any case; or the reader is a listener, is myself, listening to the rush of words and trying to find out where they are going in their headlong play along the paper, or screen, as water moves from its source in earth, or glaciers, down a course, finding its way through a landscape, over rocks, through fields, meandering and creating oxbows, plunging over mountainsides, accumulating the taste of soil, of wild sage, of fish in its dark depths, the bodies of the drowned, a broken paddlewheel, an astrolabe dropped over the side of a canoe. Until it is itself a river.
In her talk, so appropriately given at a conference of Woolf studies, Kirsty Gunn commented that at “the beginning of writing all of my books and short stories is one sentence that starts to play over and over in my mind and that I then “capture” on the page: ‘Up in that part the water smelled rivery….'” When Rain begins with that sentence, you know you are in for a wondrous read and you’re not disappointed. You follow, with your nose as much as with your eye, your ear, until you’ve “passed the little bay at the end of the first beach but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.”