“From a plot perspective, each of my characters has the opportunity to help another character, and they all take that opportunity. Now, in order to facilitate those decisions, I had to introduce them to peril. I was fine sticking them in dire situations, knowing that they’d make it through unscathed. Nobody comes off worse than he or she begins.”
The tired image of the guy with the horn smoking the cigarette on the street corner, the muted trumpet moment on the movie soundtrack–these tropes have inured us to the actual sound of jazz, but stop for a second and listen. Really listen. Solos like Gray’s and Parker’s are the kind that make the impossible seem casual. They’re the skateboarder doing a crazy triple flip on a ramp despite gravity, before we’d seen that a thousand times. They’re the first moon landing and the millions of people watching the event on TV from their living room sofas. They’re an unscripted feat that pushed the limits of what music could be.
Now seems an apt time to talk about persona. Remarkably, America has recently been talking about how we perform our selves: culturally, racially, gender-wise. How do you know you are a woman? What are the surface markers of race and culture, and how do they relate to the deep, lived experience of those things? These are questions many anthropology and gender-studies professors never thought they would see outside of their classrooms. For writers, they are also design questions: how might we enter another’s consciousness without stealing? Why do we feel moved to write in someone else’s voice?
Hilary Mantel, when she writes fiction, prefers to grab on a fact. A handhold, if you will. “I aim to make fiction flexible enough so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them,” she said in her Paris Review interview last week. If someone were to claim that the pursuit of the factual runs counter to the aims of fiction, she’d reply that most of human history remains unknown to us, anyway – we have only fragments of Sappho and stumps of buildings and broken statues and fields and fields of unmarked graves all over the world. So if you are lucky enough to build a human universe around any kind of factual handhold, why wouldn’t you use all you could get? To extend the climbing metaphor: just because you can, improbably, hoist yourself along a sheer cliff face doesn’t make the risk of falling any less, or the vista behind you any less stunning.