Mind your language, it’s the gateway to your story
Jessie Burton, Eimear McBride and John Kelly on the importance of style and linguistic vitality in your work
Jessie Burton: ‘Language is the political slippery eel. The arrangement of it can make you hate a person; it can make you cry. I want to say language is everything, but then that would make me an arch-stylist’
Eimear McBride: ‘Pulling the skin of English over the bones of Irish, with all the linguistic wonders and peculiarities, is what we do best.’ Photograph: Dave Meehan
John Kelly: ‘Style is something that just comes – at least initially. Afterwards you might choose to disrupt it somehow’
‘Works of imagination,” said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are, the more necessary it is to be plain.” An author’s sentence length or word order may be the more mechanical aspect of style, but the choice of language is surely the electricity that brings the book monster to life.
John Kelly has just published his third novel, a comic dystopian farce, From Out of the City. He recalls the importance of listening to stories growing up; of how the aural impacted on the written word when it came to penning his own work. “I remember people in my childhood telling and retelling stories. It was always done with extraordinary skill, and, for its Fermanagh mumble, with an extremely rich use of language.
“From a very early age, language and style has always been the turn-on. I know that stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but if the language is stimulating, then I’ll happily take a story with any amount of beginnings, a multitude of middles and perhaps no end at all.”
Inventive use of language
Eimear McBride has won numerous prizes – including the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year – for her debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. The book was praised for its inventive use of language. Reviewing the novel for this newspaper, I wrote that “she captures each leaping, real-time thought with staccato phrases, half- sentences and perfectly formed rhymes”.
McBride, like Kelly, addresses this bond between locale and language. “Ireland has such a rich tradition of linguistic inventiveness. After all, pulling the skin of English over the bones of Irish, with all the resultant linguistic wonders and peculiarities, is what we do best. So any diminishment of our complex and singular approach to language strikes at the very soul of Irishness itself.”
What is being said and how it is being said are intertwined for some writers, but the way you tell a familiar story makes it distinct and individual.
“There are only a few stories in the world that we constantly retell, so how you choose to transmit them is essential,” says Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist. “It’s not a brilliant idea to have a novel full only of gorgeous sentences that do nothing other than abut each other, showing off. The happiest scenario is a compelling plot that raises questions, which the writer meets and manipulates with the right, gobsmacking lexicon. I look for the moment a reader will say to herself, ‘Yes. That is how life is. Except I’ve never heard it put like that.’ ”