Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why First Person?

"Sunflowers" is here! Yesterday was release day, and even though I had to work/teach rather than play, it was still a special day. My parents sent me a beautiful bouquet of sunshiny sunflowers for my office, and my mom emailed camera-phone shots of my book on the shelves and tables of assorted Atlanta bookstores. I learned something very interesting: in a comprehensive bookstore, on a regular shelf, "Sunflowers" is shelved next to John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." One of Vincent's favorite books!

Now that the book is released, I'll be blogging about things related to it -- avoiding spoilers -- and if I'm asked a good question that I'd like to share with the whole class :-), I'll blog about that. I've been asked a couple of times, for instance, why I wrote "Sunflowers" in first person. I never consciously made a decision; I knew all along it would be first person. Why? First of all, I enjoy reading books written in first person. Recently, for example, I read Kathleen Kent's "Heretic's Daughter" and Michelle Moran's "Cleopatra's Daughter": both are terrific, both are written in first person, and they would have been different stories if the POV had been otherwise. I wanted readers to engage with Rachel in the way I like to engage with characters in first-person stories. Second, as a writer I thought I would "become" Rachel more easily in first person narrative. This turned out to be true!

Third, writing the story from Rachel's point of view allowed me to preserve some mystery around Vincent. If I had written the story in say, alternating third person point of view, then I would have been forced to show more of Vincent's actions and possibly inner thoughts. I wanted to maintain a certain distance rather than 'commit' to things we can't know for sure. The Vincent in "Sunflowers" is Vincent *as Rachel sees him,* and of course, she has an agenda!

First person does have limitations. There were many things about van Gogh's life and art I would have liked to include, but Rachel could not have known about them. First person *did* allow me to talk about Vincent's paintings from the POV of someone seeing them for the first time, which was fun. But she would not have known details about the symbolism or the artistic influences unless Vincent told her. Luckily, the historical van Gogh was quite pedantic about his own work, so the character could be too, when he was in the mood.

The first person viewpoint also allowed me -- or I should say, Rachel -- to choose how the story would be told. A non-spoiler example: Rachel is a prostitute. She has many customers. But she rarely talks about them, aside from an unpleasant encounter we learn about at the beginning. Why? Because it is a part of her life that shames her, that she'd rather forget. In a third-person story, I would have approached this differently, but in first-person, if Rachel wanted to downplay that or something else (eg events from her past), I let her. In this, I took a cue from the historical Vincent's letters to his brother. As detailed and thorough as the letters appear to be, Vincent *chooses* what to tell Theo and what to omit. There are many painful things in Vincent's life that he downplays, dismisses, or just does not mention, probably because they were painful. So it is with anybody recounting events in his/her life: two participants in the same incident can tell the story very differently, highlight some details, leave out others, according to how they wish to communicate what happened and who their listener is.

A rather long answer to a very good question!

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