Voice is something I’ve been interested in for years. My mum’s a writer, but practised as a speech therapist, so maybe that was the starting point. As a kid, I didn’t like the sound of my physical voice, but in the mid-1990s I began working as an actor and that opened things up. I realised voice was an instrument that went beyond the mouth. It came from the whole body. It didn’t have to sound nice; in fact, when it was vulnerable – frail or cracked or wobbly – it could endow a performance with great strength. During my 20s, I had a very tentative sense of my writing voice; I was good at sentences and I’d written a few things that felt real, but it wasn’t till my 30s when I discovered Julia Cameron’s ‘morning pages’, that I realised that writing voice, like physical voice, isn’t a thing. It’s a practice; the more you do it, open up to what’s vulnerable inside you, the stronger it becomes.
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland has been described as ‘polyphonic’, a many-voiced novel. Nearly all its voices belong to human characters. These characters are different in lots of ways – age, social background, ethnicity, education, literacy, geography – and this affects their voices. It influences their speech: the words they use in conversation, how and when they use those words, their intonation. It also moulds their inner voice, their idiolect: how they think, frame ideas, understand reality.
I try as early as possible to place my characters, identify biographical ‘facts’ for them. How old are they? Where are they from? England? What part of England? What social class? Did they go to university? How political do they see themselves as? And so on. Making these choices isn’t like filling out a questionnaire, neat and tidy. It’s more like responding to little jabs that come up while I’m writing, as my unconscious tries to nudge me towards a point of choice. Each choice clarifies the character’s voice, making them more distinguishable, more their ‘own’ person.
Another thing that emerges early is their psycholinguistic rhythm. How fluidly they speak, if they interrupt a lot; are they hesitant, bullish, shy? Sometimes this is linked to their geography, class, ethnicity, etc. But it always goes deeper. From the start, I could see that David (the father in Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland) was very stilted. He never finished his sentences. He was always interrupting himself. To me, he felt ashamed, kind of. Writing him meant searching for the source of that shame. I dug into his past, his relationships – trying to find out why he would rather cut himself off from his own breath than speak his truth.
I never impose a psycholinguistic voice on a character. It’s more like improvisation. I try to feel what that character is like on the inside, let that energy come up through me and take down what it’s saying. Sometimes I write things without knowing how I’ve done it. That’s always weird.
With Georgia (the main protagonist in Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland), it was tricky finding her voice. I started writing her in first person, which suggested she was central to the novel, but unlike Georgie (her third-person childhood self), adult Georgia seemed quite distant. Cool; uninvolved, almost. I wasn’t sure what was happening. Was it my problem? Was she too like me? Maybe I just couldn’t write. Then I had a What If moment. I’d always felt that someone in the novel was transgender, but thought it was a supporting character. When I cut away that character’s storyline, a new idea suggested itself: What if Georgie/Georgia is transgender? This explained some of the disconnect between her adult and child voices. Suddenly I found her incredibly interesting. The final breakthrough came when I decided that instead of simply narrating her story, she would tell it to someone: her father, David. All her tightly wound sentences, her care in justifying her actions, her fury bubbling under the surface, made sense. No longer my limitations, but her story.
One voice in Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland doesn’t belong to a character; at least, not on the surface. It’s the voice of a Museum of Curiosities, floating in a weird parallel universe, as it guides a group of unseen visitors on a dangerous tour of a place that no longer exists – German-speaking Bohemia. The Museum’s voice has its own distinctive, psycholinguistic rhythm – playful, fluid, increasingly sarcastic. The story it tells required me to do a lot of reading, but the voice itself came quickly. As I worked deeper, I found myself asking: is the Museum really disembodied? Or does it link somehow to the human characters in the novel? I found an answer, and that led me to do things with the Museum’s voice that are quite human. Like David, it keeps interrupting itself. Like Georgia, it’s furious. Like little Georgie, it has dangerous gaps in its awareness; strange puns, blank spaces.
I think the most useful question a writer can ask with voice is: does this sound true? If not, why not? Am I misrepresenting the character, putting words they would never use into their mouths, or minds? Am I trying to sound clever? Am I taking off an accent or place that I don’t know? Am I attempting to force through a plotline at the expense of the character’s inner logic? Writing, and rewriting, usually means listening hard. To what I missed in my hurry to get the draft finished, to the beats I skipped over in a scene, to the messages from my subconscious telling me what story I should be writing NOW.
In the end of course, all voices in a book are mine. It’s impossible for me to describe what that authorial voice sounds like. That’s fine. All I want is to hit a chord that feels honest, invite readers to hear a resonance and let them make their own, brand-new meaning out of that.
(c) Mia Gallagher
About Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland
Visitors are reminded that they are about to enter the Wunderkammer, a floating chamber where normal spacetime conventions no longer apply…. A bomb blast in the London Underground rips through space and time, unearthing four stories that whirl, collide and pass each other by. Sometime around now, Georgia Madden (who used to be Georgie) flees her Dublin home, embarking on a road trip spiked with the hidden dangers of her past and present. In the 1970s, as the Madden family begins to disintegrate, a disruptive stranger arrives who will bind them, briefly. While the Underground bomb ticks down, an elderly German woman, Anna Bauer, recounts her own war story to a film crew. And all along, fizzing and popping in a parallel reality, we, the ‘visitors’, are led through an unsettling and volatile Museum of Curiosities. The past crosses and weaves by the present; generations are bound together and cleaved apart; future selves remember and forget who they once were. Forgiveness is sought, offered, and withheld – and as they unspool, the fragmented lives of four people become a haunting whole, where time is unknowable.
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Mia Gallagher is the author of two acclaimed novels: Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016), recently long-listed for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize; and HellFire (Penguin, 2006), recipient of the Irish Tatler Women of the Year Literature Award 2007. Her stories have been widely published in Ireland and abroad and she has received several bursaries for literature from the Arts Council of Ireland. She is guest-editor of the Stinging Fly’s current ‘Fear & Fantasy’ issue and is a contributor to Beyond the Centre (edited by Declan Meade, New Island, 2016), a new anthology of essays celebrating writers and writing through 25 years of the Irish Writers Centre.