Anne Goodwin joins us on the blog today to talk about writing as a child. Her second novel, Underneath, is published tomorrow.
The Child in the Clothes of the Criminal by Anne Goodwin
As a reader and writer with a background in psychology I’m interested in how our childhoods shape the adults we become. So in writing my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who’s insecure in her own skin, it was almost a given that I’d include scenes from her childhood. But these were memories: the adult looking back in an effort to make sense of the past. I knew that wouldn’t work for Steve, the narrator of my forthcoming second novel, Underneath, because he’s much more cut off from his origins. I therefore decided to write them as flashbacks in a child’s voice.
I knew this was risky, so easy to get wrong. Given that the childhood scenes show his emotional neglect, loneliness and confusion my biggest fear was that it would come across as overly sentimental and mawkish. Of course, it would be just as bad to present him as overly wise and knowing.
I’d written short stories in a child’s voice before, one of which had even won a prize, but it still felt more daunting to do so in a novel. Even if less than a quarter of the novel is narrated from the boy’s point of view, I knew readers would give up on Steve if I didn’t get that part of him right. An additional challenge for me was not having young children of my own to follow around with a notebook – although perhaps that can work both ways as it’s often the “cute” side of children that captures our attention and Steve wasn’t that kind of kid.
When I began Underneath in 2010, I could think of only two other novels I’d enjoyed with a significant part in a young child’s voice. One was Louis in Liz Jensen’s The Ninth Life of Louis Drax and the other Harry in Hide and Seek by Clare Sambrook, both nine-year-old boys. Later drafts were enriched by my acquaintance with two fictional five-year-olds: Jack in Emma Donoghue’s Room (like Underneath, a psychological novel about a woman imprisoned by a man) and Pea in The Night Rainbow by Claire King. At six or seven, Stevie, or Squirt as his sisters insist on calling him, sits somewhere in between these in age.
We meet him first a little way into the novel, when there’s been time to get to know the adult Steve. It’s a moment of disillusionment, a rite of passage most children in Western culture face, although thankfully not always as uncomfortably as Steve does (p50-51):
In the playground, we’ve divided into two teams, but what’s at stake is far more important than who’s first to kick the ball between the goalposts.
Who brings your presents, then? says Jason Silcott.
Linking arms, three girls chorus: It’s your mum and dad, stupid!
Daniel Clitheroe stamps his foot: How would your mum and dad know what you want?
Can’t they read? comes the retort. They look at the letter you write to Santa.
I’ve seen him with my own eyes, says a smelly boy with thick glasses and warts.
Howls of laughter: It’s your daddy dressed up.
My skin prickles with the promise of defeat. We’ve got the wrong people on our side, that’s the problem. Not enough girls.
Jason Silcott does five perfect hops. What about the carrot I put out for Rudolph?
Your mum cooks it with your Christmas dinner next day.
I’m all wriggly like when I need the toilet and Miss Fothergill says I have to wait till break. If only I dared snatch the argument, I’d surely kick it straight into goal.
It’s a story for kids, says a girl with Goldilocks hair fastened in a floppy pink bow.
Her friends pretend to yawn, and turn away. Across the yard, Miss Fothergill raises the brass bell. My voice sounds muffled under the hood of my parka, but I know it’s reached them, because they stop and stare.
Michael Foster says: Who asked your opinion?
He says something else, but those words are lost in the clanking of the bell.
It might be tempting fate to declare it publicly – roll on all those reviews lambasting the child’s voice – but I didn’t find it particularly difficult to write. Using simpler language, and the present tense to evoke that in-the-moment side of childhood, and channeling my own memories, I wrote as if looking at the world through a little boy’s eyes. I sought feedback from industry experts early on in the process to check I wasn’t veering too far off track and then went through the same process of writing and editing as for the adult voice.
I suspect that writing as a child is somewhat akin to writing dialogue: it’s not a matter of it being authentic but it seeming so. But of course what seems authentic can differ from reader to reader. For example, while I’m totally convinced by the voice of five-year-old Jack in Room there are readers I respect who don’t believe in him at all. I wonder, however, because child narrators are relatively unusual, readers risk placing too much of a burden on their scrawny shoulders. It would be a mistake to expect a five-year-old Jack to be representative of all five-year-olds, especially when he’s had such an unusual upbringing. We’d never ask a fifty-year-old Jack to encompass everything a man of that age could be.
Another factor that must have had an influence on my writing is that, rather than starting with an adult character and looking backwards as I normally do in my fiction, my inspiration for Underneath came in the form of an image of a small boy sitting sad and lonely at the bottom of a carpeted staircase. I didn’t know who he was or what he was doing there, but I was determined to find out. Underneath is the result.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, is scheduled for publication in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of over 70 published short stories.