Voices Inside My Head
When people talk about my first novel, FINN (and please allow me, right here and right now, to offer up another “thank you” for that Notable Book designation), they wonder about my decision to avoid dialect in the characters’ speech. My answer is that if I had tried that kind of thing, I’d have gotten it all wrong. Mark Twain possessed clear access to those voices in his memory, and even if I had studied the fine points of how he achieved their various tones and timbres, my imitation would have been just that. An imitation. And a poor one, no doubt.
With the publication of KINGS OF THE EARTH, I find myself getting the opposite question. That is—why, after avoiding dialect in a book where it would have been the obvious choice, have I chosen to go the other way this time?
I think that my answer is probably a lot like Twain’s would have been.
It’s those voices in my head. Or at least the voices in my memory.
Rather than reanimating the world of Twain’s youth, in KINGS OF THE EARTH I’m recreating my own. The place where I came of age. The voices that surrounded me during that time and that sound in my memory still.
I’ll bet that in some ways my motivation in tackling this project was similar to Twain’s, as well. Here I am after all, a man in middle age, looking back on the place where I grew up and the people with whom I lived my early life, listening for the rhythms of their speech and the peculiarities of their language, hoping to overhear something important and get it nailed down.
It’s not all autobiography. Almost none of it is, in fact. At least not in the conventional sense of “this is what I did and this is what I heard and these are the things that I saw as I went along.” What’s autobiographical about KINGS OF THE EARTH is that it means to reflect the way that life is experienced in the midst of a community—as a chorus of varied and sometimes conflicting voices and stories, each with its own intent and its own point of view. So much of what we experience is, after all, overheard. So much of it is put together from partial information. So much of it is unknowable by any other means.
In other words: In spite of the many different voices heard in KINGS OF THE EARTH—women and men, farmers and city folks, con men and criminals and keepers of the peace—the book isn’t just about how they talk. It’s about how they listen. And about how we listen to them.