All This Talk of Distance: A Conversation with Christopher Castellani
GrubStreet Artistic Director Chris Castellani's The Art of Perspective (Graywolf) debuted early this year to critical acclaim for his insightful examination of the writer's perpetual point-of-view problem. Commended by the Boston Globe as "a master class — in 140 pages — on how various narrative strategies make novels tick," Castellani's book is "a modest, gracefully written meditation on creativity and craft," writes Kirkus Reviews. After months of Muse and the Marketplace madness — Castellani curates our annual literary conference here at Grub — I sat down with my colleague to talk about postmodern anxiety, the personal political novel, and how to craft a unique narrative strategy for every story.
I want to start at the end, where all good things begin. In the acknowledgements section of The Art of Perspective, you say that the greatest joy of putting the book together was your ongoing conversation with Charles Baxter. If we were flies on the wall of that conversation, what would we have heard?
Charlie and I had been having conversations about perspective and point of view for years, because we’ve taught together both at Bread Loaf and at the Warren Wilson residency. It seemed like every time I was giving a class or a lecture, the gist of it was always about point of view or perspective. When Charlie was looking for the next topic in his Art Of… series, he approached me and asked me to write a proposal for a book on perspective, since I seemed quite engaged with that topic. What followed was a series of emails in which we tried to narrow the topics because point of view is so broad, and one of our first conversations was about having the book focus primarily on the role of the narrator and the concept of the narrative strategy, which became the main thrust of the book. And then Charlie was particularly helpful — well, he was helpful with everything — on the question of who is allowed to speak for whom, and what happens when voices from the “margins” take narrative control. He was really excited about that idea and pushed me to think more deeply about it. He also helped a lot with the question of omniscience and why omniscience is not embraced as much now as it used to be. He also suggested the novel Allan Stein, which I’d never read before and wrote briefly about.
Why do you teach perspective so often? What draws you to that subject?
Whenever I’d teach workshops, either at Bread Loaf, or GrubStreet, or Warren Wilson, the key to unlocking the revision of the story we were looking at always seemed to lie in the way the story was told. So often, the narrative strategy wasn’t aligned with the goal of the story. For example, the author would be trying to tell a “slice of life” story, and yet, the story was narrated from an inordinately distant position — distanced by time, by geography, by all these different factors that prevented us from feeling intimate with the character. Narration seemed always to be the way into everything from language to setting to dialogue, to … everything. Who told the story, and how, was always the most important question, and once that was addressed and “solved,” the rest of the story flowed more naturally.
I imagine it’s particularly challenging to write about the narrator in fiction, because the narrator so often seems to disappear, either conflated with the character, or conflated with the author, existing in a nether-region between the two, a lot of the time. I was interested in the way that you imagined a lot of the narratorial machinations as happening on the physical page itself — you’d say that between this comma and that word, a fusion occurs. I was interested in the word “fusion,” too. When I’m using free indirect in my writing, I wonder, is the narrator still there? Do we ever lose the narrator? And if there is fusion, does it produce a third entity that is neither character nor narrator?
It’s tough, because when you have free indirect style, and you have a narrator, like the one in Howard’s End who continually fuses with Margaret or Helen, you can argue, certainly, that the narrator is both there and not there, that he’s speaking for Margaret, and he’s also speaking for himself. But really, Margaret is never actually there, because “Margaret” is always a construction of the narrator; who we know as Margaret or Helen is always Margaret or Helen the way the narrator wants us to see and hear Margaret or Helen. The narrative strategy would be very different if “Margaret” were telling the story in first person. In the case of free indirect style, the advantage, or the greater influence, goes to the narrator. Howard’s End is the perfect test case, because it features that gossipy narrator who is often speaking in first person but feels more like a third person narrator.
In a more straightforward use of free indirect style, where you have multiple third-person narrators, it seems as though the characters are speaking on their own but in third person. At that point they become the narrator; that fused narration is the narration.
As a writing student, I find this the most challenging thing to understand. I gravitate toward close third person in my work, and I’m not always sure why. Which is to say, I’m very poor in terms of narrative strategy. In your practice, do you start out with a considered strategy in mind? It seems like such a contrived way to think about writing.
Before you write a piece, you can and should certainly think about what might be the best way to tell it. You can ask yourself, do I want multiple first person narrators, do I want a first-person alternating with someone else, and from what point in time should I tell it? Is it retrospective, is it immediate past? You can spend quite a bit of time coming up with a plan like this, but then when you go to write, it often doesn’t hold up, because everything changes in the writing. What’s been more successful for me is to go with your gut at first, go with whatever narrative strategy speaks to you, dig in, get a chunk of pages done, at least fifty if you’re working on a novel, and then step back and evaluate what you’ve got — say, OK, what overall effect was I going for? Is it coming through? What’s stopping it from coming through? If the characters are feeling very distant, do I need to figure out ways to get closer to them, and how do I do that? How do I manipulate the retrospection, or the immediate past? Then you revise and refine your narrative strategy, and adjust. My first book started out in first person, but it wasn’t working because it needed to have a wider and more historical lens. I felt very trapped by the first person, so that was a non-arbitrary reason to switch it to third. But I didn’t know how much I wanted or needed that wider lens that until I’d already written a big chunk of it.
One question I was going to ask you — so that perhaps you can tell me why I did it — is why choose close third instead of first? It imposes distance when often the goal is to get at a character’s heart. But I suppose there is that sense of claustrophobia that comes from first.
It really depends. Often, because we are too close to the material, we instinctively choose the relative distance of a third person narration, and we crave some barrier or filter to keep us honest, to keep us from our own self- indulgence. That filter also allows room to express something beyond one person’s experience — it gives a feeling of more universality, potentially. A first person narrative is always going to be that one person’s story, and that character is going to be limited by their knowledge, by their background, by their level of education. First-person, in a way, leaves less room for the author and gives 100% of the room to the character, whereas third person leaves more room for the author, for that modulation between author and character, and sometimes the author wants to participate more. We’re selfish, or territorial; we don’t want the character to take over completely.
It’s so hard to talk about these issues in the abstract, because there are no hard and fast rules. You could give me ten examples of books that feel intimate that are written in the omniscient point of view. I can give you books that feel distant — and work beautifully — but are told in first person. None of these things is ever absolute. It’s all situational, which is why each book requires its own narrative strategy, that, if it’s a successful book, is working for that book and that book alone. And a narrative strategy is not transferrable — if it worked in one book, it’s not necessarily going to work in another.
There’s no formula.
That’s true, I mean, and this talk of — all this talk of distance —
— That’s a good title for this blog post.
—Yes! [And reader, I made it so.] Another focal point for the book was this idea that there’s been a collective move away from that god-like omniscience to this emphasis on the personal, and how we’re trying to get that right — just trying to get as close as we can to one individual experience. It read to me very much like a classic postmodern anxiety. Do you think telling one person’s story is in itself a political act?
Yes, but I do feel somewhat dismayed that, for many of us, telling one person’s story is all we feel that we can do. I do think there is that postmodern anxiety that we can speak only for one person, who is often a thinly veiled version of ourselves, or a group that we’re intimately connected to with our identities. I think that that’s a lot of what’s driving this frustration many critics have noted that novels are narrower in focus. And then there’s a whole class of novels that I call “issue fiction,” where an author is taking a political or social question and turns it into a novel to demonstrate what it’s like to go through this particular trauma, this particular set of troubles or dire circumstances. Those tend to be more commercial books, whereas more literary books tend to complicate those experiences.
So, in our third person narratives, we have this tiny little space, the distance that’s created by the narrator, through which we can stream the “idea” a little, while remaining very personal and individual. You said that now we’re less sure of our vision, but I think we’re just more aware of the fallibility of our vision, which seems to me like a good thing.
Yes, but at the same time, I miss that confidence. I almost wish that people would not try to hedge their bets. I long for the clear and strong vision, even if it’s a moral vision I disagree with, and better yet one that challenges me. Let me the reader disagree with it, evaluate it on its own terms, through the lens of characters and within the context of history. So many novels these days feature a prismatic narration, a cast of characters each speaking for him or herself, and sometimes I get frustrated with all those voices from which I can pick and choose. They feel like a grab bag. The author doesn’t have to commit to any of those points of view; they’re all just speaking in turn, and then whichever one the reader connects with is the one they take away.
That’s an interesting counterpoint to the postmodern anxiety I mentioned, which is the awareness that there is no monolith, there is no possibility for one vision or one perspective. You’re suggesting that this approach can mean we don’t commit to anything. I do wonder whether this is all a case of narrative strategy. On page 56 of the book you talk about one of Lorrie Moore’s stories, and you mention that epigraphs create distance because they reveal the hand of the author.
It reminds the reader in whatever subconscious way that the author is constructing the narrative. The author is saying, I want you to see this novel or this story through this lens, and so already before we’ve even read the first word, we have a lens and we have an author telling us, look at it through here. Your experience is already shaped, in a very subtle, almost subconscious way.
It reminded me of Barthes’s theory about readerly and writerly texts. He didn’t give us many examples of the kinds of texts this binary pertains to, but the readerly text is one in which the reader is much more passive, receiving something that has already reached completion before they’ve laid eyes on it, whereas a Writerly text is one in which the reader is collaborative with the text, is creating the text as they’re reading. I thought about that as I read The Art of Perspective, and I wondered, is this a case of narrative strategy? I’m thinking abut your notion that authors aren’t settling on a vision and are allowing the reader to delve through the grab bag, and I wonder if the attempt not to show the author’s hand is about moving toward creating writerly texts in which the reader has a greater role in constructing the story.
Absolutely. There’s a wonderful essay by Robert Boswell called "Having Gravity and Having Weight." It’s one of the best lectures I’ve ever heard on writing. He has that same formulation of readerly/writerly, but he calls it high custody and low custody, and he says there are high custody authors and low custody authors, and he’s not saying one of these styles is better than the other. High custody authors are doing all the work for you, so those would be the readerly texts. He uses the example of the novels Revolutionary Road and James Salter’s Light Years. In Revolutionary Road, there is almost no room left for the reader, because the author, wonderfully, is telling you every single thing you need to know about the characters. He’s explaining them to you, he’s analyzing, giving insight into why they behave the way they do, and it’s still great writing, but it doesn’t leave as much room for the reader. The reader is basically imbibing the vision of these characters that the author is giving them to digest. Boswell compares this to James Salter’s Light Years, which is the same exact subject matter — a bleak vision of a crumbling marriage. It’s a devastating book, and it’s almost like poetry; it’s like a Pointillist approach, a flash here, a flash there. You’re always half outside the room overhearing things, but you have to do so much work to figure out what’s literally going on. That’s very Low Custody — the author is giving more custody to the reader. Those formulations are very useful, I think. In terms of narrative strategy, you have to know whether you’re writing a high custody or a low custody text, otherwise you’re mixing the two — at one point you’re giving the reader tons of information about a character, and at another you’re withholding and letting them do the work — and that doesn’t work as well, because that strategy is not consistent. As I say in the book, the greatest virtue of the narrative strategy is its consistency and internal resonance; its archenemy is the arbitrary.
The first time I felt like I was reading a writerly text, it was Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which I’ve been raving about nonstop ever since. Reading it, I had to concentrate so much; I was so aware of the work that I was doing, to conjure, and to understand. It’s so strange because it’s very experimental, and you’re very much out of the narrative dream, and yet that’s still a Writerly text. The author’s hand is shown but it doesn’t dictate; there’s somehow less distance between the reader and the experience of the text, even though you are aware that it is experimental, and you’re aware of the author in that way, and you’re aware of your own effort in reading.
What’s interesting is to close-read a book like this and evaluate, how is the author achieving intimacy, despite all these distancing elements? What about the narration is giving us this sense of intimacy?
I asked you earlier about how the idea of having a “strategy” seems so contrived and potentially formulaic. But actually, we’re discovering that each strategy is like a snowflake.
Exactly. But you have to understand the implications of your choices and you have to see how they all fit together. You know you need to get from here to here, and you want the reader to feel X, Y, and Z along the way, so how are you going to construct the telling of the story in the most effective way to achieve those goals? It sounds very cold and clinical, but, for example, if you want the reader to feel nostalgia, you should likely consider a retrospective narrator, because that sort of retrospection lends itself to nostalgia. Do you absolutely have to have this “sepia tone"? Of course not, but that’s one thing to consider, and it’s probably going to make your drafts and revisions go a bit more smoothly. If you want to write a story about drug addicts who are wandering through the city, and you want the span of the story to be three hours, a retrospective narration might not be the best choice. The best choice might be an immediate, present tense with short declarative sentences. These are just a couple very basic things to consider when you’re coming up with your narrative strategy.
Christopher Castellani is the son of Italian immigrants and a native of Wilmington, Delaware. He lives in Boston, where he is the artistic director of GrubStreet, one of the country's leading independent creative writing centers. He is the author of three novels: All This Talk of Love, A Kiss from Maddalena, and The Saint of Lost Things. His latest book is The Art of Perspective, a collection of essays in the "Art Of..." Series. He is currently at work on his fourth novel, Leading Men, for which he received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown