Literary prize winners discuss the use of voice and language


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In the session ‘Life Stories’ at the Festival of Books on Saturday, moderator David Kipen deftly referenced passages in several of the authors’ most recent books and facilitated a lively discussion between Rafael Yglesia, Paul Harding, and Colson Whitehead on voice, autobiographical elements in fiction and their educational experiences.
Applause broke out in response to the Friday night announcement that Rafael Yglesia’s “A Happy Marriage” won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, and last week Paul Harding’s dark horse novel “Tinkers,” published by the fledgling Bellevue Literary Press, scooped up a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Paul Harding said 20 publishers contemptuously rejected “Tinkers,” and years later, when the tiny New York publisher finally accepted it, editor Erika Goldman called and spoke with him for three hours about the novel. She was the second person to read it, and told him, “I just want to make sure that I’ve read the book that you wrote.”


Harding joked about the relatively new press whose headquarters are in a “janitor’s closet” in the Bellevue Hospital Center (it’s actually a tiny office on the sixth floor).

Best advice Harding ever received? “Don’t ever mix up writing with publishing.”

Rafael Yglesia forthrightly admitted that “A Happy Marriage” is an autobiographical novel. While many novels fictionalize a marriage after a divorce, Yglesia said, he wanted to draw a marriage after a death, the death of his wife, who died in 2004. It seemed right to him that if he wanted to write about the intimacy of marriage, he should use the richest vein of material available to him: his own relationship.
Although the novel’s scenes were constructed for the sake of narrative, the major events are true. Yglesia said that “no matter what you write, readers assume it’s autobiographical,” so he concluded he might as well actually write an autobiographical novel.

Whitehead talked with Kipen about voice. Kipen said he enjoyed the “verbal pyrotechnics” of some of Whitehead’s past work, and Whitehead talked about what a huge role language has played in his writing, specifically in the nonfiction book “The Colossus of New York.” Since that book didn’t have a narrative to drive it forward, Whitehead relied upon language — in the form of half-rhyme and cabling sentences together — to provide propulsion. He finds that he constantly has to adjust his voice as he writes a book — Page 50 may be too heavy for the light tone in the first paragraph, or the first paragraph will be too serious for the humor on Page 50.

Harding and Yglesia chimed in how they wrestle with voice. Harding said he has a book within a book in ‘Tinkers’ that uses a pretentious sounding “high enlightenment” voice. “You find excuses to write in certain voices,” he said. “But sometimes I try to write without a voice.” He argued that everyone has a voice and you can’t outrun it. So writing without voice, paradoxically, might be the best way to discover your true voice.

Yglesia admitted that the hardest thing for a young writer is to find his or her voice. While taking questions from the audience at the end of the panel, someone asked Yglesia how he’d counsel other writers to achieve a unique fictional voice. “Writing a lot and failing a lot,” he said. —John Matthew Fox writes for BookFox.