“They told him everything. He told everybody else…” so goes the gossipy and joyous tagline of Swan Song, the prizewinning debut by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. We were delighted to welcome Kelleigh to Words Away last month to discuss Voice: the Writers Palette. And what a glorious salon it was, complete with Truman Capote inspired cocktails…mine’s an 'In Cold Blood Orange’ with ice please!
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott was born and raised in Houston, Texas, before moving to Los Angeles and now lives in London. Swan Song, her first novel, was published in 2018 and is the larger than life story of author Truman Capote & his betrayal of the beautiful, wealthy women he called his Swans. It was named one of the Books of the Year by The Times, and was long-listed for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
So what do we mean when we speak about “voice” in writing? Kelleigh suggested that it’s a quality that makes one writer’s prose specific to that writer. In its purist form, voice is personality making itself known through language. It’s a technique, style or rhythm - so that when you read a passage of Truman Capote or Donna Tartt or Hemingway or Faulkner or Zadie Smith, (insert an author you love here) you recognise that author’s essence and spirit coming through the prose. It’s tricky to pin down a specific definition because voice is so intrinsically linked to an author’s influences - it might be connected to how an author’s grandmother talked, capturing specific cadences and rhythms. It might be drawn from their childhood, or imbued with the music they listened to whilst writing. It might be the author’s subject, or a landscape, or a character study. It’s all of these bits of influences and how the author synthesises everything to bring their personality to the page.
What’s interesting, said Kelleigh, is the difficulty in trying to identify one’s own authorial voice, adding that it’s probably dangerous to try, especially when you’re in the trenches. It puts you in your own head and you may cease to do the very thing that you are trying to do. Avoid being analytical when you’re in the thick of the creative process - i.e. drafting, grafting and working it all out - save that for later when you don your editorial hat. What you might find as you write, she said, is that within the book you can develop each character’s voice. Kelleigh’s not just referring to dialogue here; it’s the manner in which a character speaks, their speed, rhythm and word choices. You can start to identify and develop the essence of a character. This can apply to chapters and sections of the book too. It’s not something that you can actively conjure - voice is a part of you and your history, it’s in your bones and ends up finding its way on to the page through the language. You won’t necessarily think ‘that’s my voice”, but others will recognise it as being very specific and original. No one else could have written it.
We talked about Kelleigh’s development as a writer and how her fifteen year career as a screen-writer has shaped her voice. Her background has given her a profound understanding of dramatic structure and the importance of character and dialogue. Story telling is all about understanding what makes story dramatic, what makes us care and what makes us invest. All those years of directing plays and writing screenplays coupled with a love of cinema have made her the prose writer she is today.
Emma wondered if there were challenges in writing about such well documented ‘real life’ figures like Truman Capote and his Swans? How much creative space was there for Kelleigh as a writer? In fact, said Kelleigh, Truman came very easily. They share a southern background and are both colloquial storytellers. Kelleigh’s lifelong passion and fascination with Capote, as a man and a writer, underpins and drives her book. This is a key factor in relation to voice. Find something (be it a subject, an idea, a landscape, whatever) that you are obsessed with. What Kelleigh set out to explore was that unknown side of Truman at his most vulnerable and private moments in order to work out the riddle of why he betrayed his beloved Swans by publishing their secrets. The Swans; Slim Keith, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwell and Marella Agnelli were considered the most influential and brilliant women of the age and yet are remembered as a set or flock. They’re not remembered for who they really were. Kelleigh mentioned that two of the Swans were alive at the time of writing, adding a level of psychological pressure to the process. Her agenda in fictionalising the women was to recover their voices, both collectively and individually. She had no interest in maligning the Swans and wanted to do justice to each of their perspectives. Her sources and references are found in the book’s acknowledgements.
For Kelleigh, form is intrinsically related to voice. The complex form and structure of Swan Song evolved over several years in an organic way. She didn’t outline or write the narrative in chronolgical order and described the process as a mystical, intangible, marvellous experience. Kelleigh stressed that to think about technique early on would have been crippling. The book moves around in time and through multiple points of view. A version of this story could have been written in a year and half but it wasn’t the story she wanted to tell. Success in literary contests, (referenced below) played a huge part in the evolution of the book, forcing her to finish by writing to deadlines. It also introduced her to peers like the writer Sara Collins.
How can a writer find or develop a unique, recognisable quality in their prose? Don’t just walk around the pool and dip a toe in - dive in! Sit down and force your way through the process. Read, research, write every day. Navel-gazing counts too as long as you’re thinking about your story. Find a subject you’re in love with so that you have an urgent desire to tell your story. You might be intrigued by a character, an idea, a question you need to answer. The key to it is having something that you care passionately about. Kelleigh didn’t know exactly what she wanted to say in the beginning, but driven by the question of why Truman Capote risked everything in his life (his relationships with his beloved Swans) to write the novel that killed him, she wrote her way into it. Whenever she strayed off track or veered down a rabbit hole she questioned her original intention. It was a process of discovery. It’s a long game. Let your idea gestate - it will get richer and deeper as you’re working on it. Let your idea have a life - allow yourself to play within the space of that idea. Get to know the characters so well that they start speaking through you and you through them. There’s a reason writing a book takes time. There are no shortcuts. There’s no way to write it other than to wrestle through the process. Get in the trenches and deal with it, fight and even hate it. It’s tough going and hard because you feel that you don’t know what you’re doing ninety percent of the time and then…something clicks. Sometimes you can’t be the best judge of your work - you need a reader or readers you can trust. That reader has to be someone who knows and understands your vision and what your going for. Another pair of eyes can also point to what you didn’t know you were doing well. You also need resilience and courage. Your courage springs from your need to write the book. No one else but you is going to write these particular characters and bring your narrative to life.
Capote said, it’s a painful thing to reach in to the sky and to have to drag the worlds down from the clouds. He also said, the stories will find you. Follow that inner voice. What do you need to sit down alone in a room to get that story down? Not every idea is going to be the passion project. If it’s not the one that haunts you put it aside. Emma added that it’s a good test of an idea to go and do something else - it will come and bang on the door when and if it wants to be written.
It was a truly splendid salon with lots of audience interaction including a lively Q and A. Thanks very much to Kelleigh, Emma and everyone who joined us for an illuminating exploration into the mystery and artistry of voice! Cheers too to Harry & Freddie Teahouse for magicking the ingredients for the Truman Capote cocktails - Santé!
Our next salon to be held on Monday 8th July is Miracle in a Matchbox: the Art of Short Story Writing with Adam Marek. It’s the last before our summer break. We’ll be back at the Teahouse on Monday 23rd September for a salon with Diana Evans, author of Ordinary People which was recently shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize - so please save the date! Booking is to open soon as well as more dates and details regarding the autumn salons and masterclasses.
Meanwhile enjoy the summer sunshine and hope to see you soon!
References & Links:
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan Song, Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffanies, In Cold Blood, Answered Prayers, To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee, Donna Tartt, Hemingway, Faulkner, Zadie Smith, Slim Keith, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwell, Marella Agnelli, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career by George Plimpton, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, This Itch of Writing: the blog: Free Indirect Style: what it is and how to use it by Emma Darwin, Corrido, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize, The Bridport Prize , Peggy Chapman Andrews Award for a First Novel, The Historical Novel Society New Novel Award, The Bath Novel Award, Myriad First Draft Competition, Sara Collins, The Riff Raff salon: championing aspiring & debut writers, UEA