Recognising your voice when writing

The Silence of the Girls is Pat Barker’s latest book and is currently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. She ruminates on the difficulty writers have finding their voice and then maintain their voice throughout their career, the physical reaction one feels in response to good writing and the relevance of historical fiction in our lives today.

How did you find your writing ‘voice’?

I found my voice when I was doing a creative writing course with Angela Carter. One of the exercises that we were set was to have two contrasting characters who were brought in to conflict and then write about it. I read my piece out that night and Angela Carter liked it very much, which was important to me because it was really the first time I had written out of the kind of environment that I came from. Before that I had been writing ‘pseudo-middle-class-lady’ books. I shouldn’t have needed validation but the fact is I did, and I think that a lot of people at the beginning of their career need validation by someone more experienced.

Finding your voice is a lifelong project, and then the fact that you’ve found it doesn’t mean you can’t lose it. It’s a life’s work to maintain your voice and discover what it can do, because it doesn’t do just one thing, there are things which are within its range and things which are out of its range. You go on to a lifelong project of mapping your territory.

How do you recognise your voice when you find it?

Some people feel it at the back of their neck; it is a physical sensation.. It’s a very important point to emphasise, that it is a physical reaction. People don’t often really know that. I think you can have this sensation but you don’t necessarily trust it when you’re starting out and because you don’t trust it, it makes it harder to get to it again.

How do you make historical fiction accessible to everyone?

Historical writing can have a lot of talk about how different people were but you need to balance that with the idea that, in terms of the history of our species, the whole of recorded history is less than the blink of an eyelid. In other words, these people who had very different takes on the world are nevertheless, biologically identical to us. You need to remember that. A lot of the techniques in making the past come alive are involved in centring yourself on the body, on the sensory experience of physical joy and physical pain. So it doesn’t matter if a person thinks that the world is flat, it doesn’t matter at all.

When you’re writing historical fiction, you’re asking questions of the past. But the questions which you choose to ask are suggested by today. They wouldn’t be the questions a Victorian would ask or someone from the next century, if we’re still here. They’re questions that we ask and, without forcing it, that produces relevance to what is going on in the present day. If you ask the questions that sincerely occur to you, you will be relevant.

Pat Barker spoke to Claire Armistead at Hay Festival about The Silence of the Girls on Sunday 26th May. Listen to highlights of the Festival on Hay Player.