Now Reading
Chris Parker on writing women narrators and seeing the world from their eyes

Chris Parker on writing women narrators and seeing the world from their eyes

I’ve been asked why I chose to make the narrator of my first novel, Nameless Lake, a woman, but really, that’s putting it the wrong way round. Something made me start writing in the voice of this character – Emma – and I only realised later that she would be the perfect narrator for the story I wanted to tell.

The roots of my decision might lie decades in the past, with the whole family rushing to the sofa in response to the mournful brass blare of the Coronation Street theme tune. Here was a world dominated by women’s voices, sharp and wild and larger-than-life yet somehow more real than anything else. I absorbed these voices long before I had an inkling that someone, somewhere had written them.

But years later, through some miracle of luck and time travel, I stood in a bar in Manchester while the Street’s creator Tony Warren shook my hand and told me he had enjoyed an episode I had written. I had somehow stepped into a parallel universe and was part of a team responsible for putting words in the characters’ mouths, fifteen of us taking turns to pick up the endless story and bring it to life by getting inside the skins of these people whose faces were as familiar to us as our own.

Those feverish years of deadlines and rewrites gave me a profound respect for soaps and a fresh understanding of their power. Whatever our gender as writers, we had to leap into every character’s shoes and see the world from their eyes. Most of the time, capturing an individual’s essence would outweigh any other difference between them and ourselves. “Does this sound like Deirdre?” This was the kind of question that woke me at night. “Is my Gail really Gail enough?” Soaps have become a force for positive social change precisely because of the way they require writers to look at life from different perspectives – to “be” other people.

When it came to writing a novel, I turned to books for inspiration. The breakthrough for me was Kathy, the narrator of Never Let Me Go, unassuming and prone to heart-breaking empathy. As a woman written by a male writer, is Kathy’s voice believable, or authentic? As a man, that’s not a question I’m able to answer. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s commitment to the character burned through every word and inspired me to create a narrator I, too, would have to work hard to inhabit.

I wanted to write about the power of memories. I wanted to write about lifelong friendship in all its complexity. I wanted to write about coercive control and the catastrophic web it spins around families. But I also knew I didn’t want to spend time inside the head of an abusive character, to place him centre-stage. I am totally immune to the charisma of the violent protagonist, so rampant in everything from true crime podcasts to Netflix’s Dahmer that it seems to reveal a flaw at the heart of storytelling itself – a machine for glorifying the worst people ever to walk the earth, while their victims remain shadowy and forgotten.

Emma, my narrator, is able to sense something is profoundly wrong in her friend Madryn’s marriage, but comes to mistrust her own intuition. Through her, I wanted to explore how friendship can heal us, how it can give us back to ourselves after catastrophe. To do this, I had to construct a lifelong connection and choose moments to focus on, a little like bringing old Polaroids to life.

I love autofiction, but there’s something dispiriting about the assumption that a narrator should be an avatar of the writer. That isn’t to say my own experience is absent from my novel. Emma’s world is shaken when she loses her father. Mine was, too. Would Emma’s experience of grief be any different from my own? I love it when I can feel an author wrestling with this kind of question as they write. I hope my own readers feel it too.

I hope I’ve done justice to my narrator, as Ishiguro did for Kathy. I also think of the men brought to life by the fearlessness of women writers. Of Tommy Lee Royce, electrifyingly scripted by Sally Wainwright, prowling Happy Valley. I think of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, with its wall-to-wall male trauma. I think of Hilary Mantel resurrecting alpha males doing their deadliest to out-alpha each other.

Stories can’t exist without risk-taking, without empathetic leaps of the imagination. Fiction can survive anything except too much caution. That’s the lesson I’ve learned from the bold, brash and brilliant soaps.

Nameless Lake by Chris Parker is published by Salt Publishing on 15 July 2023 as a Paperback Original at £10.99

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.