Can we do it? Yes, we can: Sarah Bannan on daring to use the first person plural
The author of Weightless, about gossip and guilt in a US high school, explains why her choice of narrative voice felt risky but right
Sarah Bannan: “this revelation [about writing] – after the fact – is like life for me. It’s only in hindsight that things become so clear.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
In a small town, gossip is currency. In a small town, rumour is truth.
In a high school, there’s us. In a high school, there’s them.
When we are young, we know everything. We know everything and nothing. And we think, we feel, we say: almost everything in between.
The question of narrative voice, when it came to Weightless, was easy. It came so easily, in fact, that I questioned it. It came so naturally, I thought it must be wrong. It was so hard to stop, I wondered if I had started to go insane.
I had been warned: by writing tutors, by other writers, by the words of James Wood. The first person plural is rarely successful. It is alienating for the reader. Challenging for the writer. Almost impossible to sustain.
So. Why then? Why did I insist on the “we”? Surely the story of a new girl coming to a small town could be told in a number of other, less complicated, ways. Why not a first-person narrative voice from Carolyn Lessing, the new girl? Or from one of the cheerleaders? From one of her boyfriends? Or why not a third-person voice? One of the teachers, a parent, a journalist, even? Or maybe these could be juggled around, creating something layered, polyphonic? Why choose the “we”?
Weightless is my first novel. It’s very loosely based on a real-life story that dominated the news in 2010. But I deliberately set the novel in a town much like the one where I went to high school. Some might say this was out of laziness – couldn’t I write about someplace else? But I knew the terrain so well. And I wanted to write about it. Couldn’t not.
I moved to a smallish town in Alabama when I was 13. In 1991. The heat, the make-up, the football, the cheerleaders: everything was new to me. Make no mistake, I am – was – nothing like Carolyn Lessing from Weightless. I was not beautiful or talented or immediately popular like Carolyn. I was awkward and nerdy. I did nothing to rattle the status quo. But, I think, being an outsider allowed me to observe things closely. I noticed things that I don’t think I would have if I had lived there my whole life. My town stayed with me. So did my friends, the world we inhabited together.
The larger set pieces in Weightless – the Homecoming dance, the float-making, the Adamsville balloon festival – are based on events in this town’s annual calendar. These rituals dominated our lives. And they had an impact on me. On my friends. Us together.
“We” were never part of the popular crowd, but we weren’t social lepers either: we were somewhere in between, which meant we were never part of the action. We were always bystanders. There was a difference between “us” and “them”.
“We” also talked a lot. About things we didn’t know, but things we thought we knew, and then these things somehow started to be true.
Weightless has a simple story. There are plenty of novels about a stranger coming to town. And they’ve been told with various voices. In various ways. But I think the themes of Weightless go a bit beyond this. We read about a new girl coming to town. But then we watch the rumours unfold. We watch the rigid hierarchy of high school. Of teenage life. The absence of responsibility. The collective nature of guilt. The hypocrisy of small towns. Social isolation. Belonging. How unknowable the truth is, especially in the digital age.
The thing to remember, and the thing that I sometimes forget, is this: these themes were not at the forefront of my mind when I was writing. Not at all. Now that I’m done, now that I’ve read it countless times, I can see things a bit more clearly. I can see that these themes were obviously there, in my subconscious, in the back of my mind. And that’s why I was so drawn to this particular voice. But it was writing in the voice that brought the themes into such sharp focus.
And this revelation – after the fact – is like life for me. It’s only in hindsight that things become so clear. It’s only after the hard work – the sweat and the tears and the early mornings and the late nights and the sense that this is all a waste of time – that you can see that you sometimes knew what you were doing. That all of that was worth it. That the mistakes weren’t mistakes. They were just things to learn from. That your instincts were trying to tell you something. If only you could listen to them. Or know how to.
Once I committed to voice, I found writing this novel easier. I developed a rhythm. I knew the voice. Felt it inside me. It came naturally. (Sometimes I thought it came too naturally: I had left high school almost 20 years earlier and it still seemed so raw and available!)
I made a list of all of the limitations that the first person plural voice carried, the things that “we” could and couldn’t know. I stuck this to my desk, to ensure I didn’t forget them. But the more I wrote in the “we” the more I realised that it was an essential part of the story. And I think this is the most important thing when it comes to voice: it needs to feel real, authentic and natural, but it also needs to be a part of the story itself.
I didn’t forget about the problems that the first person plural could cause for the reader, the challenge in empathising with an unnamed and necessarily vague collective. So I used a few tricks to break up the narration: inserted some school assignments; minutes of meetings; letters; Facebook feeds; newspaper articles. I wanted the novel to seem like a kind of a scrap-book. To feel like an unofficial yearbook for the narrators. For the reader to feel like they were eavesdropping on a conversation that they maybe weren’t meant to hear. Most importantly, though, I wanted it to be the kind of book that I would want to read myself.
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus). This article was first published on writersandartists.co.uk, the companion website to Bloomsbury’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.