Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing Violence

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Muay Thai fight

Like all writers, I’m often asked what my writing is about. Especially with regards to my recently published collection of stories, Debris, and the novel that I am revising for publication next year (both with Biblioasis). I’ve always had a hard time trying to answer that question. Probably because there are all kinds of layers in any good writing and I spend a lot more time on the work and planning the work than I do talking about it. Over the last few years though, I’ve found myself talking about these things more and more.

If I’m trying to be funny, I’ve often said: “Yeah, it’s generally all just hillbilly violence,” or something of that nature. People I know personally quit talking to me at that point, and people I don’t know laugh it off and we go from there. There is some truth in saying that, but most of it is me just being weird and trying to sidestep any serious conversation about “artistic” concerns in my writing. On the surface, most of what I write about does involve poor people from the country, and there is often hardship and violence and people tend to get hurt, physically and emotionally. But, in most good writing that actually involves violence, that violence is not the focus of the work. Hell, it is not even usually that substantial when you compare it to time spent dealing with the emotional heft of a story, or the tension that builds toward violence, if you really want it to matter in any significant way.

(One thing to note, also, is that my constant reference to “hillbilly violence” isn’t technically accurate. Real hillbillies are actual people who live in the mountains or foothills of Appalachia or the Ozarks or perhaps interior British Columbia. Before moving on to discuss the place of violence in writing, I’d like to apologize to all of those rural folks if I’ve misrepresented them. I guess, where I’m writing about, “redneck” or “hick” or “yokel violence” would be more apt…)

When I read violence in literature, it is often impossibly bad. It is clear that it was written by an author who has never experienced it, and perhaps never even seriously observed it firsthand. If they have, they’ve missed everything important about the physicality of it, and where the significant components of that physicality play into the actual act of violence, whether it is short or sustained. Even good writers, who do many, many things well, often write violence poorly. Mostly, it is not a matter of their lack of skill or observational or analytical aptitude, but that they are simply looking in the wrong place, at the wrong thing. My belief is that their looking at violence happens more in their brain and what they imagine, than in anything they’ve ever actually seen or experienced or engaged with. Violence is hard to experience in earnest. It is hard to look at and to actually do. But, so much of writing is looking earnestly at difficult things, and the unpleasantness that people are involved in. Sex and violence are the two most powerful expressions of human physicality, and both are often badly written. I’d say that most writers tend to write sex more effectively. They will engage with it, in an honest way, more readily. I think I write sex well enough, but that I write violence far better. But hey, that is my own personal set of problems to take to therapy.

There is one passage that I’ve gone back to now for fifteen years, that I always think on and that, on contact, changed the way I write violence and physicality. The passage is from "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway. It is at the fiesta in Pamplona, when Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn trade insults, and Barnes takes a swing at Cohn, a trained boxer…

“I swung at him and he ducked. I saw his face duck sideways in the light. He hit me and I sat down on the pavement. As I started to get on my feet he hit me twice. I went down backward under a table. I tried to get up and felt I did not have any legs. I felt I must get on my feet and try and hit him. Mike helped me up. Some one poured a carafe of water on my head. Mike had an arm around me, and I found I was sitting on a chair. Mike was pulling at my ears.

'I say, you were cold,’ Mike said.”
-

That passage is almost one hundred years old, if you can believe that. We take it for granted in Hemingway now, and I know that he has his critics, but anybody who disagrees with his ability to write physical violence doesn’t know what the hell they are talking about. Hemingway’s style suits written violence very well, and his experience as a boxer is plain in the writing. He doesn’t tell us the technical aspects, but rather lets it play out as it would if a regular person got into a scrap with a trained fighter. So many things actually happen in this fight, but what Jake actually sees and feels is true to life, profoundly so.

Like a good horror movie, it is what is left out that really matters. In an act of heightened physicality things happen quickly, and often imperceptibly. You would have to train, as Cohn does, in a combat sport, or have substantial experience with physical violence, to see every link in that chain from beginning to end. For the purpose of most good writing though, and a story that is not about professional fighters or professional killers, etc., you have to humanize the violence and pick and choose the points of contact that will ring true to the reader, and leave the right measure of effect without crossing into some gratuitous, or unrealistic, or overwritten scene or meditation on what is happening physically. Here, we’ve seen Jake swing, Cohn slip the punch, and then beat the living hell from him. That it happens so quickly is perfect, as is the fact that Jake doesn’t know the all of what happened. To drive it home, we have to think that Jake was knocked out at some point, based on the gaps in time. Sure, you can lose time during a violent encounter, especially in one that is sudden, as much violence is, but we have to assume this part where Jake is hurt and has his bell rung, where he runs that thought through his head that he “must try and hit him,” followed by his being brought back around, is the result of him being knocked out clean after that very thought.

It’s such a simple paragraph, but tells volumes about physical violence and how a fight really plays. It also speaks to Hemingway’s clear experience in boxing, where, we know historically, he knew what it was like to be knocked out and lose time. You could observe that without actually experiencing it, but it feels very personal here. His matter-of-fact description of how the fight feels is also bang-on. He is just in it, and then things are happening to him. He’s hit. He’s down. His legs are gone, and he’s on rollerskates when he tries to stand. He has that instinctual and peculiar thought that he has to hit Cohn back. And then he’s coming around in the chair.

I may or may not have had a conversation recently with a young writer who asked me about being in fights. I’ve had some as a younger and much stupider man, but I later trained in Muay Thai, and trained hard, did the hard sparring. That experience, joined with the fact that I’m a massive fan of Mixed Martial Arts and watch it almost religiously, has really helped me break down and analyze that violence in the actual mechanics of it, to the point that parts of it become so fascinating and almost – cough – beautiful. Still, it happens as it happens. Anyhow, this young writer asked me if I’d ever be hit in the face, and I told him yes. I even told him I was kicked in the face a bunch of times when I was jumped during a fight I was winning. This when I was just seventeen years old...

“What did that feel like?” he asked me.
“I didn’t feel it,” I told him. “I was just in one spot looking at the guy I was on top of and then I was in another, looking at the sidewalk.”
-

I’d not advise anybody to get their research done that way, but I would propose that you approach the practicality of written violence in the same way you would any other complicated physical act that you might research, and then try to imbue it with emotion organically. People have such visceral reactions to well written violence that you don’t have to tell them what to feel. If you’ve done your job, they’ll feel plenty.

This might also be a good time to refer to the language of violence, and look back to how simply Hemingway put it, in the paragraph above. Control your words, and perhaps think on how hilarious it is when you read bad sex in a story or novel. Those rules apply to some degree, that less is more, and you’d be better to think on some of the links in that physical chain, a few little physical details, the strange little spots your brain goes in the moment, and how things feel physically without any reference or self-reflection on what they mean on some grand scale.

The same way you wouldn’t say: “turgid member” or “explosive thrusts of ecstasy,” because it’s worthless, you also wouldn’t say “flew across the room” or “struck a powerful blow” or “his fist rocketed into Billy’s gaping mouth.” This ruins a scene, and, for me, it can ruin the whole work.

An even more important problem to discuss might be violence for violence sake, as a writing method. There are books that I love, like "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy, that have a tremendous amount of very graphic violence. To the point where it can feel oppressive, even to readers who don’t easily blanch at brutal violence on the page. In defense of a book like "Blood Meridian," I would point out that the violence therein is brutal, but is historically and physically accurate, and McCarthy is using this for the effect of proving a very important point about what “The West” was actually built on. It also serves the purpose of making the reader feel as “the kid” might in the book. That deadening, numbing effect of repeated violence, where it becomes less and less to him, and is gradually just absorbed into his life. In the documentary and book, "Shake Hands With the Devil," retired Canadian Lieutenant-General Romeo Daillaire talks at length about the deadening of emotion through violence, in what he’d seen and tried to understand in the Rwandan genocide, that this violence is processed that way by the brain in order to allow somebody who participates in it or witnesses it to continue functioning. This is unpleasant stuff, but if that large-scale, extreme violence relates back to one person’s physical, mental, and emotional experience, it is something worth exploring as part of the human condition. I will not say that people have to read "Blood Meridian," and I understand why they’d put it down. But there is merit there, and a real literary design to the violence inside.

On the other hand, there is a bunch of writing that is “edgy” and violent just to shock you, or the “torture porn” trend in some modern horror films. This kind of thing, with no actual purpose, is cheap and lazy, and deadens the impact to any serious reader or audience. Often when you read back through a book, or look at a movie where violence is done well (such as "A History of Violence," directed by David Cronenberg), you’ll actually find that there was much less space occupied by actual violence that you might remember. It’s just that the tension around it, and the dread or anticipation of it, and the lingering effect of it, can make it feel like it took up much more room in the work.

This is probably why, when a reader who does not like violence has talked to me about the stories in Debris, they'll usually tell me they can stomach it. The common thing is that they do not actually remember the reading of it as a trauma or a grind to get through, and can engage with the necessity of it, and its value in the story. The tension and the characters involved in the situation, as well as the writing, make the violence matter, and, in many cases, essential to the story. It takes a lot of work to get it right, but I think any physical expression as powerful and personally engaged as a fight or an act of violence, much like the physicality of sex, should be explored, and treated with respect.

Of course, this is what I’ve always written, and is very personal to me. And it is certainly not all that I’m concerned with. It's just that when you write about life and death matters, and stories where everything is at stake, these larger expressions of human emotion and physicality are often integral to that world. It would be disingenuous not to have them happen, and, that makes the handling of these things all the more important. The violence, much as it is in a fight gym, is to be respected for it’s actual functionality and potency, and, as a result, parcelled out with great care and thought through the course of the narrative.

2 comments

Hi Susan,

Thanks very much. I'm glad you liked it. As far as that little scene, I think it would be much the same whether Hemingway wrote it in first or third person, given how his sensibilities bled over into both POVs (in that it is still all very matter of fact and activity based). Nonetheless, here is another third person example, from Cormac McCarthy and "Blood Meridian" this time, as it seems fitting:

"...He drained his glass and went out. There were boards laid across the mud and he followed the paling band of doorlight down toward the batboard jakes at the bottom of the lot. Another man was coming up from the jakes and they met halfway on the narrow planks. The man before him swayed slightly. His wet hatbrim fell to his shoulders save in the front where it was pinned back. He held a bottle loosely in one hand. You better get out of my way, he said.

The kid wasn't going to do that and he saw no use in discussing it. He kicked the man in the jaw. The man went down and got up again.

He said: I'm goin to kill you.

He swung with the bottle and the kid ducked and he swung again and the kid stepped back. When the kid hit him the man shattered the bottle against the side of his head. He went off the boards into the mud and the man lunged after him with the jagged bottleneck and tried to stick it in his eye. The kid was fending with his hands and they were slick with blood. He kept trying to reach into his boot for his knife.

Kill your ass, the man said. They slogged about in the dark of the lot, coming out of their boots. The kid had his knife now and they circled crabwise and when the man lurched at him he cut the man's shirt open. The man threw down the bottleneck and unsheathed an immense bowieknife from behind his neck. His hat had come off and his black and ropy locks swung about his head and he had codified his threats to the one word kill like a crazed chant.

That'ns cut, said one of several men standing along the walkway watching.

Kill kill slobbered the man wading forward.

But someone else was coming down the lot, great steady sucking sounds like a cow.

He was carrying a huge shellalegh. He reached the kid first and when he swung with the club the kid went face down in the mud. He'd have died if someone hadn't turned him over.

When he woke it was daylight and the rain had stopped and he was looking up into the face of a man with long hair who was completely covered in mud. The man was saying something to him.

What? said the kid. I said are you quits?

Quits?

Quits. Cause if you want some more of me you sure as hell goin to get it."

- Now, that's a long one, but it's got everything in it, and in a different tone and voice than with the Hemingway. Still the same principles hold true. In good violence, and good action, you are often going to notice that this kind of writing supersedes the POV, or at least it should. If it's first person, as mentioned in the article, they are going to see it as a series of actions that they don't quite understand and will describe as such, and if they do understand, as a character the knows violence, they will still see it as a practical application of a skill that they know very well. This will still tend toward just describing the actions matter-of-factly. At least, this is my interpretation when it really gets down to it.

All best. Hope that helps.
Kevin

Hi Kevin,

Great article. You gave an example from Hemingway of a scene of violence written from the first person POV. It makes sense that there is lots of detail missing when the narrator is participating in the violence. But what about when the story is written in the third person? Can you please post a brief example of a great scene in third person POV and make a few comments about it, as well?

Thanks!
Susan

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kevin Hardcastle

Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. His work has been widely published in journals including The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Joyland, Shenandoah and The Walrus. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and has twice been published in the Journey Prize Stories anthology. Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, was published by Biblioasis in September 2015. His novel, In the Cage, will also be published by Biblioasis, likely in fall 2016.

You can contact Kevin throughout the month of November at writer@openbooktoronto.com

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