God is in the Details

So, I’ve been ruminating lately on detail: the kind of detail that takes you into a story—really takes you in, so that you’re lost in the world of the characters. It’s a fine art, getting the details right; giving just enough but not so much that you tire the reader out.

Two Canadian writers whose detail I admire are Marina Endicott and Alyssa York. At this writing, I’m halfway through Endicott’s latest novel, The Difference. It’s about a girl named Kay, her much older sister Thea who raised her, and the just-married sister’s husband Francis, captain of the Morning Light, who takes them on a Melville-esque circumnavigation of the globe as the ship drops off and picks up cargo at strange and exotic locations. The year is 1912. While the novel itself is about so much more than its characters and settings, it is the characters and settings that create an absorbing read. This, in turn, allows me to discover the deeper meaning of the story.

The more I write and the more I learn about writing, the more difficult it is to sit down and lose myself in a good book without asking why the author did this here, or left that out there, or used that language when much better use of words could have been found had they just taken a bit more time to find them. But The Difference is different, if you’ll pardon my saying that. It is a truly absorbing journey aboard a Nova Scotia merchant ship as it plies the Seven Seas under a fully realized crew and a newly blended family still not quite blended, all the while looking over the rail at jaw-dropping sights, sounds and smells that assail us along the way.

Given life in late 2020, this kind of trip is a blessing. I’m taking an around-the-world cruise without leaving the safety of home. Endicott’s secret to keeping me absorbed—to making me feel I really am on a journey rich in sight, sound and sensation—is the detail. It’s in how she uses that detail, obviously informed by meticulous research to render her characters and their settings in all their three-dimensional splendour. This goes for their personalities as well as their looks and the places in which she sets them. No character in this book is one-dimensional; all have their share or fine points and foibles, and that makes them as real as the curved timber walls of the below-decks saloon where Kay spends less and less time learning Greek and practicing sonatas on the piano.

At random, I’ve picked a spot to illustrate Endicott’s mastery of description—not just from the outside as the narrator might tell it, but from the inside of the character witnessing it from the deck of the Morning Light:

                Two long black shapes.

                Then another, rising and curving, wet-shining between them. Then a spume of water, and another, with a sound like a coughing sigh, ahhh! They were whales—she had been waiting so long to see them.

                “Humpbacks,” Francis said. “Two of them, with a calf.”

                Kay looked and looked, following the black lines and the low, aerodynamic fins that showed, and winked away beneath the wave.

                The water felt empty without them.

Alyssa York once explained that, for Effigy, her Giller Prize nominated novel, she drew plans and diagrams to keep all the details of her settings straight. That story happens on large compound . It involves a Nineteenth Century Mormon household in which Dorrie, the fourth and youngest wife is obsessed with taxidermy. This suits “husband” Erastus Hammer just fine, because he it’s her talent for displaying his hunting  trophies that he’s married her for.

Here, too, York draws on careful research, taking inspiration from Utah’s Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857–and from learning the finer points of taxidermy–to draw the kind of fine detail that takes a reader, not just “into” the story, but “inside” the story.

If the author doesn’t have the setting straight in their own mind, York once explained to a masterclass in novel writing, the reader won’t have it straight either. And that’s an excuse to put down the book you wrote and move on to someone else’s.

In this novel, there is much coming and going within a large house and throughout a sprawling Utah ranch. Again, picked at random, here’s a description of a walk Dorrie takes across the barnyard at night:

                As the last of the broad-leaved trees falls away, outbuildings stand in order of increasing size. First, the chicken house with its warning fox nailed flat. A waste of a good pelt, but Mother Hammer had insisted…

                The cow barn seems peaceful by comparison, its inhabitants dark-eyed and dull. Dorrie continues on to the stable’s massive façade and lingers there a moment, steeling herself before rushing the last, curving leg of the way—the corral a tame gateway to a terrible expanse.

                Which brings her back to the old adobe barn. Its high grey door is so worn as to seem furry. She lays her palm to it, lets it slide in a single downward stroke…

York told us that, during the writing of her 2016 novel The Naturalist—besides having previously sailed the Amazon River where much of the book is set—she once took her husband to a hill in a Toronto park and asked him to pace off a certain number of steps to help her visualize how one of the characters in her book was going to ascend a section of Amazon riverbank.

These are the lengths to which authors go in order to bring us stories that we will fall into as though we were living those fictional lives ourselves.

I would argue that this is at least one reason why both these women have been nominated (Endicott, three times) for the country’s most prestigious literary prize. For novelists especially, God is in the details.

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