Of course I don’t expect a drum-roll here, but will nevertheless bang a tiny drum of my own and point out to Sam and others who might be interested, that my blog for this week is an expansion of a part of my essay titled “Literary (creative nonfiction) docu-memoir: a different way of writing a life,” which was published in the international European Journal of Life Writing Vol. 3, 29 October, 2014 http://ejlw.eu/article/view/136/ http://ejlw.eu/ If you are a writer of, or one who writes about, works of life writing, the EJLW is an open-access, fully peer-reviewed, e-journal on life writing, and the editorial staff are very human—very approachable, very polite, very helpful—and are themselves writers of note. Officially, all articles should refer to “Europe” or anything “European,” or better, should not concentrate solely on, for example, American literature, or such like—bring Europe in somewhere. And now, some more words for Sam.
When Tony Parker sat down to write a book he did not begin with a theme in mind, rather he transcribed the interviews and waited to see what would emerge. Parker claimed that he never began an interview with a list of prepared questions; “I always try to approach a subject without any pre-conceived ideas at all.… I always regarded myself as a blackboard for people to write on. And see what they write on it…. And see if a theme came out of it” (Thompson 1994, p. 67). Lyn Smith, who had known Parker for years, writes that to get what he needed from his informants and give them the “opportunity to express themselves” and their deeper thoughts and feelings so he could capture their “essence” in his books, and do them justice, Parker “had to structure the interview—[but] his virtuosity was the unobtrusiveness of this” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 247).
Asked by the interviewer Paul Thompson if when dealing with a community rather than a single subject he saw the problem of editing to be different, Parker replied, “Yes. Because [with a work on a community] you’ve always got to think, ‘What gives this unity?’ … [when crafting] you decide whether to make the unity the individual, or the place…. I get all the tapes together … listen to them, think about them, wonder how I’m going to make sense out of them” (Thompson 1994, p. 67). Parker added: “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t” and he named Lighthouse (1975) as an example of a successful work about a closed community (Thompson 1994, p. 67). In this essay I will use Parker’s Lighthouse as a fair example of Parker’s works in general.
To research for Lighthouse, Parker lived amongst the lighthouse community and stayed out on the various lighthouses with the lighthouse keepers. Lighthouse is mostly crafted as a series of interviews and conversations that begin with brief but vivid introductory descriptions of the individual informants. As was Parker’s usual practice, and as with most of his works, these short introductory passages do not employ an “I” and so place the emphasis fully on the informants’ thoughts and feelings about their experiences which, in Lighthouse, is that of living in the lighthouse community and working in the lighthouse service. These passages also place the informants in their homes or places of work (lighthouses), and so provide an ordinary and “normal” setting for the interviews. Lyn Smith says Parker “always strove to put the reader in the picture, and became a very skilled pen-portraitist describing his informant in his or her setting” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 251).
Speaking about the ethics for creative nonfiction writers generally, and the various practices of creative nonfiction writers, Theodore A. Rees Cheney argues a writer’s ethical positioning: “Creative nonfiction writers may well bring themselves into a story, either overtly or subtly, believing it only fair to let the reader gauge the writer’s credibility and thus the accuracy of the facts presented. For creative nonfiction writers, concealing themselves, in a sincere attempt at objectivity, gives the reader no reference point,” leaving the reader “no choice other than to believe the facts, or reject them totally” (Cheney, Writing Creative Nonfiction … 2001, p. 197). In Parker’s Lighthouse, the researcher-interviewer-writer is as little present in the story as is possible, but is nevertheless subtly present, and this is evident throughout the book.
In Lighthouse, for the main part, the researcher-interviewer’s presence is only implied through the informants’ conversations. As well, in Lighthouse, the researcher-interviewer’s questions are never directly asked, rather implied in the informants’ conversations. For example, a young Cornishman drinking in a bar, announces in reply to a question that is not actually known to the reader because it is not printed on the page, “That’s right my handsome that’s what I am, a lighthouse keeper, yes” (Lighthouse 1999, p. 13). For much of the book, and especially at the beginning, the interviewer does not refer to a self—as in “I” or “me” or “we,” for instance. Yet from the very first pages on, it is possible to infer that there is a narrator, and that this person is the interlocutor and a male, and a researcher-interviewer-writer. Partly this is because the Cornishman at the bar calls the person he is addressing “my handsome,” and partly this is because Lighthouse is a book that begins with a letter from Trinity House addressed “Dear Sir” (Lighthouse 1999, p. 9). As well, it is partly because the old retired keeper who more or less opens the book, exclaims, “A very good day to you too young sir! … A book, you’ve put that out of your mind have you? No, I didn’t think you would, somehow. You’ve brought your infernal tape-recording machine with you I see” (Lighthouse 1999, p.18).
As the book progresses this “presence”—whom one could assume to be the writer-interviewer-narrator—occasionally becomes more clearly “seen” in that at various times, in one or two brief instances, he does use the terms “I” and “we,” and one thickly accented lighthouse keeper calls him “Tawney,” i.e. “Tony” (Lighthouse 1999, p.p.161, 181). Even so, in the latter part of Lighthouse, the narratorial presence is still conspicuously absent from the pages as a “visible” character, but is nevertheless implicit in that the informants are talking to someone, some presence, other than themselves—for instance, as with the account of Eric G. in the chapter “Different people, different things,” for example. Probably because of the way the book is structured, and because this is a book by “Tony Parker,” it is possible to infer that Parker is not only the author of Lighthouse, but also the narrator and the researcher-writer-narrator in the book and also the invited interviewer in actuality, of the lighthouse keepers and their wives.
One could see all this as Parker’s attempt to draw the reader’s focus to the subject, to the informant, and into the book as a first-hand (but in reality, a vicarious) witness of what life is like for those who live and work in the lighthouse community. Parker, himself a visitor to the lighthouse community, invites his readers to be his guests as visitors to the closed community, and see for themselves that lives which they may previously have known little or nothing about and found somewhat mysterious are not so very different from other lives—lighthouse keeping is just one job out of thousands of jobs, and all jobs, no matter what they are, make demands on the workers and their families.
In fact, it could be said that in a work such as Lighthouse, a work about a closed community, Parker sets himself up as the demystifying agent but ultimately, in the process, he mystifies himself as creator. In the book, through the words of one Keeper’s wife, Jean E., Parker implicitly tries to balance this situation and show the reader that he himself is no different from any other ordinary person. In Lighthouse, Jean E. does some very straight talking. She could equally be addressing the reader when she tells the implied narratorial presence, “I wish it could be got over to people that it wasn’t something freakish, that being a lighthouse keeper is not all that much different from any other kind of job [….] You wouldn’t take it as a subject for a book if you didn’t think of it in the same way, an occupation that was slightly odd and a matter for curiosity” (Lighthouse 1999, p. 233). By implication, Parker allows Jean E. to give him a slap on the hand and in so doing aligns himself with the reader. The further implication here is that, as the writer of the book, Parker alone can get it “over to people”—the readers—that lighthouse keeping is not something that is “freakish.” Moreover, regardless of individualities, and even though circumstances and experiences vary, people are people the world over, a point which Parker makes in his book through a Keeper’s words. Principal Keeper Steve Collins has the final word in Lighthouse. He tells the “unseen” visitor-writer-narrator, presumably Parker, “Your job as a PK’s to see the light’s shown when it should be, not let it dazzle you so you can’t see anything. These are men here, give them the freedom to be as they are. Christ knows it’s an odd way of life they’ve chosen; [.…]” (Lighthouse 1999, p.p. 282-83). Steve Collins then adds, “This thing is about human beings getting on with each other [.…] I hope it’s an experience of that. When you go yourself [leave the lighthouse for the land] try and take back some sort of impression of ordinary human beings rubbing along” (Lighthouse 1999, p.p. 282-83). Steve Collins is, of course, only talking to the writer-interviewer about working in the lighthouse service. Yet on a different level the keeper’s words could equally be those of Parker addressing the reader.
In another blog I noted that Parker was an objectively sympathetic interviewer, and empathised with his informants. When crafting his books, Parker made his empathy manifest as creative empathy (I will discuss the process of creative empathy later, in another blog), and demonstrated his use of creative empathy through the informants’ conversations. The various members of the community understand what others in the community are going through, and empathise with each other generally. Lyn Smith reveals that in a review of Parker’s work, the much acclaimed critic John Banville once wrote about Parker:
[…] he is a very cunning writer. By means of arrangement and pattern, rhythm and tone […] he achieves an extraordinary narrative tension. He knows exactly where to place things, so the reader is carried along from one sly revelation to the next … he is as little present [in his books] as is possible to be, but that does not mean he is off paring his finger nails. (Banville qtd. in Smith 1999, “Only Listen …”1999, p. 252).
This essay to be continued … watch Sam’s blog space next week for the next episode
Cheney, Theodore. A. Rees. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great Nonfiction. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001. Print.
Parker, Tony. Lighthouse. London: Eland, 2006. Print.
Smith, Lyn. “Only Listen … Some reflections on Tony Parker’s methodology.” In Criminal Conversations: An anthology of the work of Tony Parker. Ed. Keith Soothill. Introduction by Terence Morris. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Thompson, Paul. “Tony Parker: Writer and Historian interviewed by Paul Thompson.” Oral History Vol. 22: No. 2. 25th Anniversary Issue (Autumn, 1994)). 64-73. Web. 3 Aug. 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40179366