By Laura P. Valtorta
Yesterday I watched an interview with Stephen King on PBS’s News Hour. He’s always a fun interview. King’s thrillers are page-turners, but the book of his I enjoyed most was his 2000 autobiography, On Writing.
During the television interview, King talked about learning how to write. Oftentimes, he said, writers read their favorite authors and emulate them.
One of my favorite authors is the Canadian fiction writer, Margaret Atwood. From Handmaid’s Tale to Blind Assassin to The Heart Goes Last, her accounts of women’s superiority, struggles, and triumphs never fail to be inspirational, entertaining, and funny. Each book is different. Right now I’m re-reading the dystopic trilogy – Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. I’m studying Atwood’s balance of description and dialogue, her use of complicated vocabulary and invented words, and how she employs humor to make a point.
No one can be better than Atwood, I think. And then I read Donna Tartt, whose writing is not as well-crafted as Atwood’s, but who makes me visualize situations I’ve never dreamed of. I agree with almost everything that Atwood writes. Tartt and I don’t agree on anything – and yet I adore her fiction.
A trait that Tartt and Atwood share is that they take great pains to describe the habits and appearances of their characters. I can see Atwood’s Oryx very clearly, and I know a lot about her childhood. Tartt’s character, Harriett, is a girl I could recognize racing past me on her bike, with her swingy black hair and sarcastic voice. Neither Oryx nor Harriett is a photograph.
Providing just the right description, while leaving the reader hungering for more, is a gift. I wish there were a word-scale I could use. A passage that sounds good when read aloud might not contain enough description.
This kind of research – reading my favorite fiction writers – is something I’ve immersed myself in since childhood. Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. For that, I have to thank my mother.