Kitty Fitzgerald on Discovering Pigsense

fitzgerald.jpgIf you saw the NYTBR review for Kitty Fitzgerald’s novel Pigtopia yesterday, you’ve caught a glimpse of the remarkable voice that Fitzgerald created for Jack, a village outcast in the mold of Boo Radley. I was curious about how Fitzgerald created his unique form of speech, so I asked her—and this was her reply.

The story of Jack Plum started life as a radio play called Pig Paradise, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1998. At the time I wrote it, I couldn’t find Jack’s inner voice at all, and didn’t even know if I wanted to, so his character was explored entirely through dialogue with the younger Holly Lock.

It worked well and I felt no loss at not having Jack as part-narrator of the play, which had been the director’s desire. After the broadcast I thought I’d heard the last of Jack Plum but it wasn’t to be. Fragments, images and words kept shoving themselves into my head; I saw an inordinate number of pigs rummaging in fields and at times felt as if someone large was following me when I took the dog for a walk on the moor.

Eventually I understood there was more to be explored in the story of Jack. I sat down and began making plans for turning the play into a novel. This time I knew I had to get right inside his internal landscape.

It wasn’t easy finding Jack’s voice because it wasn’t a technical linguistic exercise; it was a question of being able to hear its nuances inside my head. The creative process is a strange beast. You have to find a way of opening yourself up to possibilities; you have to get rid of your internal censor; you have to listen and wait. And when I finally heard the first sentence from Jack’s inner world, that was just the beginning.

Here was the situation. Jack Plum was not a feral character, nor was he in the grip of any syndrome or other, but he had been deprived of human conversation since his father’s disappearance when he was a child. He had never attended school so apart from his mother’s insults, words and sounds he picked up from the rare human contact he had, and what he was able to glean from the radio his father left, no one spoke to him. How then would this character, who was intelligent but uneducated, put words and sentences together?

I had Jack’s first words: “Mam says dad was pigflesh and pigmind.” I could hear the intonation, the stresses, the hesitations. The task was to develop the voice from clues in that one sentence and leave space in my head for him to speak to me again.

I got it wrong, I made mistakes, I edited it over and over again, working only on Jack’s sections for weeks at a time. Jack’s voice came and went both in my waking and sleeping time. I travelled to visit pigs, I read about them, I listened to music from the film Babe, Saint SaĆ«ns Symphony No 3 in C minor, op.78 ‘Organ’. It was a very long process of trial and error but Jack Plum’s patois slowly emerged and took shape, a little like the difficult birth of a piglet.

I wanted Jack’s language to describe for the reader the loneliness of his isolated existence; to illustrate his intelligence but also his lack of formal learning; to draw readers into a world where pigsense has more value than human sense.

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31 October 2005 | guest authors |