When Should the Nonfiction Author Interrupt a Story to Offer Insights?
Readers of nonfiction want glimmers of author interpretation, either within an underlying narrator’s ‘voice’, or overtly in first-person—but doing so in my current piece, a history of a privately-owned 694-acre island, is difficult. Lots of ‘facts’ have been lost and I’m not comfortable about speculating—though I do have educated guesses. Instead I left readers to their own conclusions in a first draft that chronicles the stories of aboriginal people, European royalty, an heiress, and a murder victim.
But reviewers of that draft have wanted more. “You write the story without any authorial interpretation, as an historian,” said Saskatoon writer David Carpenter, who challenged me to step out from the shadows. Celebrated war historian Tim Cook agrees. “I think if you are an historian, you’ve got to stick to your sources. What can you know? And yet to be a writer, you need to offer some conclusions. Is there not a happy medium?”
Stephen J. Pyne, author of a nonfiction writing guide, says this delicate balance between storytelling and reflection is among the hardest skills to learn. Indeed, it’s “a breaking point for many nonfiction writers: you have to both narrate and comment, that is to express both action and analysis in the same text.”
What’s required, I suggest, is informed intuition to gauge the ‘why’ and ‘when’ of providing authorial insight that’s illuminating, rather than a story-spell-breaking digression.
I started by turning to some masters for examples of ‘how’ to take a stand. Here’s George Dangerfield summing up the essential qualities of American president John Quincy Adams as the underlying narrator:
He was a puritan in his distrust of political expedients; a puritan in his hatred of himself; a puritan in his belief—nowhere expressed but everywhere apparent—that this hatred was evidence of an innate superiority…
And here’s Molly Peacock in The Paper Garden, paralleling her own contemporary life in first person to that of her 18th century biographical subject:
I was shocked to find [the mansion], substantial with its pillars of stone… But what shocked me more than finding it was its demonstration of the substantial difference in our wealth. It was the first three-dimensional evidence that she had existed, and the reality of her aristocratic life was so palpable that it stopped me dead in my tracks. How could I have been comparing my life to hers?
I could take either position–or both–because I’ve already entered the narrative to give a few cameo snapshots of descendants.
So–here’s how I’ll approach revisions. My theme and sub-themes are carefully crafted. They’ll be my guides to ‘when’ and ‘why’ to speak, to illuminate those themes. I have burning questions myself. I’ll assume readers wonder ‘why’ too and offer commentary, with clues to reveal they are guesses. For the ‘how’ of it, I’ll speak mainly from the underlying narrator position because my attempts at first person interpretation have read like clunky confessions of shared foibles, coloured—I now realize—by growing too close to my subjects and their descendants.
Dangerfield’s forthright style of underlying commentary, in the John Quincy Adams example, is not for me, but here’s an attempt to ruminate on the mystique of an island:
Dad always wanted to own an island,” recalled his daughter Marian. There’s an allure to the notion of an island, with its moat-like insularity, surrounded by the bounty and caprice of the sea. The Andrews now had their own six hundred and ninety-four acre paradise….
I’m on a new trajectory here—and will follow up with more thoughts in a future blog. Meanwhile, please send your experiences and examples of where writers succeed—or cross the invisible line from helpful authorial insight into soap box rambling.
 Voice and Vision, A Guide to History and Other Serious Nonfiction, Stephen J. Pyne.