Thoughts on Viewpoint — Offered as Part of the Burlington Free Press Young Writers Project

First, a disclaimer: I am happy to discuss the degrading experiences that mark my life as a novelist on the road. Book tour, I’ve noted, is a term that may have been coined by Inquisition torturer Torquemada when he was trying to find a slower, more subtle form of torment than either the rack or the iron maiden.
I am less comfortable discussing the craft of writing, however, because it suggests a great deal more premeditation on my part than usually occurs. A lot of what I do — and this is especially true after nine published novels and two impressively bad unpublished ones — is muscle memory and instinct. Moreover, some writers (not all) make me squirm for both them and their audience when they speak in great stentorian tones about voice and authenticity and linear momentum. (Okay, I confess: I, too, have used all three terms.)
That point noted, I think it is downright inspiring in this era of digitally-driven non-fiction — blogs and podcasts and good old-fashioned websites — that there is anyone out there at all who is still interested in reading and writing fiction. So, thank you.
Whenever I discuss the process of writing, there is one question that readers and aspiring writers alike ask me more frequently than any other: “How did you write your novel, ‘Midwives,’ in the voice of a woman?” The novel is structured like a memoir: A 30-year-old female ob-gyn is chronicling the summer when her mother, a midwife, was tried for manslaughter after one of her mothers died in a home birth that went tragically wrong. The narrator was 14 at the time of the trial and is recounting this event with both the wisdom and wistfulness of adulthood.
On one level, the question is pretty basic: How did a balding, middle-aged guy get anything at all right from the perspective of a woman?
On another level, however, the question gets to the heart of the most important decision novelists make before they embark upon a book: Is this novel going to be written in the first or third-person? (There are second-person novels as well, such as Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” but the vast majority of novels are written in the first and third-person.) The late John Gardner elegantly outlined the advantages and disadvantages to both in his spectacularly clear and helpful guide for young writers, “The Art of Fiction.” Essentially it comes down to this:
· First-person offers an idiosyncratic voice and great intimacy. But it also limits just how much knowledge novelists can share with their readers, because they can only offer the information their narrator can know at the time.
· Third-person allows novelists to jump in and out of any character’s head whenever they want, but it may feel more emotionally distant than first person. Moreover, the omniscient narrator probably won’t have a voice that is especially eccentric.
Writing ‘Midwives’ in the first person offered precisely those advantages, while forcing me to solve problems directly attributable to the limitations of having but one perspective. The narrator’s name is Connie, and here is how the novel opens:
Throughout the long summer before my mother’s trial began, and then during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county – her character lynched, her wisdom impugned – I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked.
The first-person helps to humanize Connie and make her more accessible. We know that whatever crucible looms before her and her mother, we will be hearing the tale directly from the daughter herself. The third person would have made Connie a step removed from her readers, because there would have been the intermediary of the storyteller in between.
Of course, the first person also meant that readers could never know precisely what the lawyers or jurors are thinking. Or Connie’s father. Or, most of the time, Connie’s mother, a midwife named Sibyl.
Notice I said most of the time. There were points in the novel when it seemed critical to allow readers an insight into what Sibyl was experiencing. The solution? Diary entries. “Midwives” is told largely from the perspective of Connie, but I made Sibyl an inveterate diary writer so there could be moments when we can know what she is feeling, too.
My novels are pretty organic creations, which is part of the pleasure for me of writing them. I seldom know where they’re going. Sibyl’s diaries, for instance, did not begin as an important part of the plot – but they would become one.
And so while I may write without a road map, I never embark on the journey without knowing precisely whether the tale, whatever it is, will best be served by a first or third-person driver.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press, January 24, 2006. You can also read readers’ reactions to it at .)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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