Of the Ventriloquist’s Voices

An astrologer I once consulted told me that, if I had not become a writer, I would have had to become a criminal. She went on to say that my chart revealed that there was an extreme contrast between who I appear to be and who, in fact, I really am.

But actually I had long been aware of my Jekyll/Hyde nature—of the presence of alternative—uncivil—personalities. Their darker natures are integral to my writing because writing for me is a private and relentless campaign of subversion.  That does not mean, of course, that I am not also the very civilized Dr. Jekyll. Nonetheless, I do hear wicked voices.

Oh yes, I hear voices—nasty, impolite, insidious voices. I mean that quite literally. No, I don’t mean that I’m delusional. But under the right circumstances—either in the solitude of my office or sometimes quite unexpectedly when I am somewhere else—I hear these terrible voices speaking to me. That is not to say that I hear these voices speaking many sentences all at once. Oh no, that would be much too easy for me—and therefore inconsistent with the exquisitely delightful torture they inflict. No, I usually hear the voices speaking only at most a sentence or two at a time. Sometimes I hear a phrase. And sometimes it is no more than a word. “Stinkard,” for example, I once distinctly heard one of them whispering in my ear. And then later he went on to say some truly shocking things like: “Pissing-while” and “bawdy-house”—and he actually spoke of flowers as being the “odoriferous privities of vegetables.” Yes, and another equally unpleasant voice once shouted down my protest and commanded me to scribble down absolutely everything he was saying about “harlots” and their “ivory posteriours.”

For me the process of writing fiction is entirely determined by what these  voices say and by what (in spite of my sincere desire to remain polite) they ruthlessly order me to do.  And believe me: they don’t care in the least if it’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m trying desperately to sleep. No, if they want me to take dictation, I must obey—get up, find a pen, write it down. This peremptory process of dictation is language-driven—completely conducted not only by specific words, but also by the specific syntax and rhythm that are peculiar to each individual voice. And so, as a fiction writer, I am very much like a ventriloquist who has several different—mostly unpleasant—puppets consecutively sitting on his knee. But before I say anything more specific about my own ventriloquism, I feel that I first have to correct the popular misconception that the ventriloquist somehow “throws” his own voice. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth. For the fact is that the ventriloquist, far from throwing his own voice, is instead a kind of pitiable sideshow freak who has the odd, mediumistic ability to discover the voice of the puppet.

In Lizard World, for example, roughly half of my characters live and speak in the twenty-first century, while the other half live and speak in the eighteenth-century. One of my eighteenth-century characters is a nasty, haughty, rich, vain English Lord.  Another is a servile, hypocritical, grave-robbing doctor who first enters the Lord’s employment when he brings him the corpse of a recently buried whore. One of my modern-day puppets, on the other hand, is a bungling psychopath, an ignorant Floridian yokel, named Lemuel Lee Frobey. Unlike the 18th-century voices, Lemuel Lee’s voice does not speak to me in euphonious Johnsonian sentences. Instead, Lemuel Lee’s mind is a very dim, crude place that comes to me through a voice that is equally crude and dim.

For example, one of the things I first heard Lem distinctly tell me is that he refers to the toilet as a “commode.” This was a great clue to his voice because there really are no synonyms and the choice of one word over another tells you as much about a person as the choice of a ketchup-stained tee shirt over a silk chemise. The person who refers to a toilet as a “commode” is simply not the same person as either the guy who speaks of it as  “the crapper” or as another fellow who calls it the “pot”—nor should any of these very different people be confused with the little man who refers so delicately to “the facilities” or with the woman who politely excuses herself to go off to  “the powder room.”

When Lemuel Lee Frobey—my bungling modern-day psychopath—insisted upon speaking to me, his grammar and his sentiments were equally appalling: “Now ain’t that real polite,” is the kind of thing I’ve heard him say. Or: “Shut yer goddamn pie-hole.” Or: “Yessir, he’d planned out everything real good.” Or: “You don’t know jack freakin’ shit, do you?” Or: “I bet you ain’t never before seen how damn big your keester was.”  Yes, and I’ve heard him mutter things like  “bush-pig,” “skivvies,” “skank” and “butt-ugly.”

In order to hear these criminal voices, I usually began by going to my plot outline—a computer file containing a loose, but increasingly refined synopsis of the overall structure of my story. My next step was to find the paragraph or so which contained the kernel of an idea for a new chapter; my third step was to copy this chapter-kernel into another computer file that was my everyday workshop. I now began the process of ruminating upon, magnifying and elaborating the chapter-kernel. The idea at this point was to get an overall, very loose sense of the structure of a new chapter. It usually happened, while I was in the midst of this very fluid process of sketching the outlines of a chapter, that the voices began, very tentatively, to speak. If this did happen, I recorded whatever they said—even if it was only a word or phrase. But it wasn’t until I satisfactorily understood the structure of a chapter that I gave myself over entirely to the voices.

Once I’d gotten this far—once I’d truly understood the nature of the dramatic action of the new chapter—I worked on putting myself into a kind language-driven reverie wherein I was able to make myself receptive to what the voices wanted to say. One of the ways I did this when I was working with an eighteenth-century voice was by reading over passages in seventeenth and eighteenth-century texts. The authors I mostly worked with were Samuel Pepys, Captain John Smith, the Earl of Rochester, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, John Cleland of Fanny Hill fame, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.

I also worked closely with The Oxford English Dictionary. I was always on the lookout for obsolete or antiquated words or turns of phrase and so I closely studied the 17th and 18th century quotations the OED provides as illustrations for the uses of particular words. Since my nasty English Lord was a young man in the late 1680’s and since my doctor is writing his memoir in 1740, I rigorously eliminated any words or turns of phrase which either have become obsolete before the mid-seventeenth century or were current after 1740.

But the difference between hearing a contemporary voice (like Lemuel Lee’s) and an eighteenth-century voice (like my English Lord’s) does not only depend upon an ability to choose or eliminate specific words. For an eighteenth-century voice also often expresses itself by means of a syntax—an order of words— that a modern voice would never use. A modern speaker, for example, only   infrequently places the verb before the noun—the predicate before the subject.  A late seventeenth or early eighteenth-century speaker, however, will often do this.   Speaking of the arrival of one of his friends Pepys says “hither came Jack Spicer to me.” But we would say: “Jack Spicer came here.” A modern speaker of English usually puts an adjective and its modifying adverb before the noun: he or she would, for example, say that something is “a very useful thing” for a gentleman. But Pepys says that something is “a thing very useful for a gentleman.”

The past tense of a verb is sometimes formed a little differently. A modern speaker, for example, would say that “General Monk had recently come.” But Pepys says that “General Monk was newly come.”

Whereas a modern speaker will use the simple past tense of a verb, an eighteenth century speaker will often speak of a past action by preceding the infinitive of the verb with the word “did.” The modern speaker will say “he found that I was gone.” The eighteenth-century speaker might say “he did find that I was gone.”

A verb which, in modern usage, is customarily followed by one particular prepositon was customarily followed by a very different preposition in the eighteenth century. We, for example, “brag about” our wealth. An eighteenth century speaker “brags on” his wealth. We are concerned “about” something. An eighteenth-century speaker is concerned “at” something. The list of subtle differences is virtually infinite: and each antiquated word or turn of phrase, each obsolete peculiarity of syntax, brings the old voice—so to speak—increasingly into tune.

One day, for example, I could tell that one of these many wicked voices (in this instance, my nasty eighteenth-century Lord) was trying to tell me something truly awful—about his unsuccessful attempt to ravish a young maiden. He had won the right to do so in a card game.  I knew that the encounter would take place in the garden of the manor house belonging to the lady’s uncle, the Viscount Chommeley. I knew that my Lord would at first be denied admittance to the house, but would barge in nonetheless—and find the lady asleep in the garden. And I knew that the Lord would desist from his attack because he was suddenly overpowered by her beauty and by the fragrance of the flowers. I listened very carefully and after a while this is what I heard the old voice say:

For I being now most exceeding wroth, both by reason of the postponement of my pleasures and of the base and insupportable usage I had received at the hands of that facinorous stinkard Chommeley , I presently took coach to Chommeley Hall, purposing there at once to demand of him to acquit his tardy debt. Thither had I no sooner come and knocked at door and suffered myself to be enquired of by some scurvy little varlet in livery, than I did perceive by him that he’d been charg’d to bar me from admittance. For upon my desiring of him to announce me to his Lord, he most pertly gave me to understand that his master was not at home. Thereupon, when I did enquire after his lady, this rascally creature did give me the lie to my teeth, saying that my Lady Chommeley was indisposed in her cabinet with the vapours. But I was not to be so saucily put off and did now command the fellow to conduct me straightways to my charmer—whereupon this wretch answering me with most intolerable insolence that none should see the maid without his master’s privity, I did not demur to strike the little pismire with my cane  .For it may well be conceived that I now would brook no further trespass on my patience.  Hence forthwith did I commence to seek the maiden out—until, at the last, one of the blowzes who did scrub the floor—a most fat-bummed, crook-backed, bad-faced animal, did beg leave to direct me to the garden—whither I did now , in all haste, betake me.

For what now befell I do confess I can adduce no manly explanation, save only to say that there, of an evening in that garden, amidst an odoriferous glut of honey-suckle, roses, lilacs, hyacinths and jessamins I did fall prey to a very conspiracy of flowers in such wise that I did find myself, of a sudden and in a manner most surprising, ell nigh sick with an overmuch sweetful surfeit of smell. Certain it is that twas a flagging of my animal spirits occasion’d by this most unforeseen and exceeding over-burthen of smells that doth explain the o’ersweet languor in my vitals and the unexampled hesitancy that did now, on a sudden, overtake me. For when presently I did come upon the maid, a-sleeping with her prayer-book on a bench, and did see the pretty stillness of her face, so fair as I had never seen the like, and how her white chemise, which became her mightily, did rise and fall in concert with her breath, and how the setting sun did incarnadine the luster of her tresses, and did perceive myself upon the point of swooning for the aromatick excess of the flowers, I very near forbore to touch her bosom. But then, bethinking me how the creature was mine by reason of her uncle’s bargain and how long I had been cheated of my prize, I did rowse myself up from this my unprecedented weakness.  I had but scarce commenced to finger the alabastrine satin of those orbs, when the maid did start awake. I do confess I ne’er did find myself so sore disordered. For now—when I did perceive the beauteous alarum of her grey eyes—I could not chuse but find my spirits once again belimed by this most excessive glut of fragrant smells. Indeed, I must fairly own that I had like to have remained quite utterly at a loss, had a prodigious bloated and unsightly spider not now chanced upon the garden-walk hard by. This I did no sooner point out to my charmer than, lifting of my boot, I did crush the vermin quite, declaring withal that I had seen it a crawling on her person— wherefore I had made bold to brush it off.  I did say, moreover than this, that I had happed into this garden forasmuch as I was an old acquaintance of the family and was come to pay my service to her aunt.—

Oh well, I think that’s really quite enough to give you a sense of the kind of thing these wicked voices say to me. Anyone at all who knows me will tell you that an unsavory—nasty—fellow like this—a man who would strike a footman with his cane or fondle a woman he has never met—is entirely antithetical to my character. In fact, I can solemnly assure you that I have always been and will always remain scrupulously polite and civilized: I hope I never harm a living soul, and I always stop at stop signs.