Grammar Girl talks with acclaimed writer Cherise Wolas, author of The Family Tabor, about creating voices for fictional people, her interpretation of the origin of the word "cauliflower," and her quest to use every word in the English dictionary.
GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?
CW: The English language might be the most populous in the world. We have so many marvelous words that are going unloved. Until I effectively and poetically use every last one, I don’t feel the need to create a new one.
GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?
CW: My personal peeve has to do with the fact that my knowledge of grammar has become so embedded in me, so automatic in the way I use it, that I would have no ability to explain to anyone the whys of any of it. And when I hear someone explain some grammatical rule, it’s as incomprehensible to me as a math problem.
The books I read have beauty at the sentence level, and so I’m rarely grammatically peeved when reading the works of others.
GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?
CW: The deep-diving I do into the marrows of the people in my novels—I never call them characters because they are completely real and alive to me—organically creates their unique voices, their specific cadences of thought and speech, which includes how they grammatically express themselves. The particular voices come naturally, but then I work very, very, very hard to get each voice absolutely right; every interiority and every line of dialogue must belong to that particular person, and could not be thought or spoken by any other person in the book.
...my knowledge of grammer has become so embedded in me, so automatic in the way I use it, that I would have no ability to explain to anyone the whys of any of it.
I feel incredibly fortunate that the ways in which my fictional people think and express themselves, affects readers so much they feel my people jumping off the page and into their own lives. With The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, I’ve received many requests from readers asking where they can purchase the story collections and novels written by Joan Ashby and excerpted in the book. This lets me know that I made Joan Ashby fully real and completely alive. This overwhelming response is joyous to a writer. And the same incredible response seems to be happening with The Family Tabor, for which I am so grateful.
GG: Do you have a favorite quotation or passage from an author you’d like to share?
CW: Shortly before her death, Ursula Le Guin said, “A writer’s job is to surprise readers, to shake them, to turn their expecations on their heads. Because that’s when they begin to see.”* This resonates so deeply with me because it is what I seek as a reader, and it is what I hope I achieve as a writer.
*I spliced the quote together to knock out the interjecting interviewer.
And the following, from Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and The Search for Identity, affects me each time I read it, and seems to crystallize what I find myself currently delving into as a writer:
"It is not suffering that is precious, but the concentric pearlesence with which we contain it. The raw grit of anguish will never be in short supply. There is enough of it in the happiest life to serve these instructive purposes and there always will be. We are more sympathetic to Holocaust survivors than to malcontent children of privilege, but we all have our darkness, and the trick is making something exalted out of it."
GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?
CW: I am constantly, consistently, felled by one. While there are equally vociferous proponents and detractors of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I have a copy near at hand on my desk, neon-yellow tabbed at the distinction between lay and lie.