Voice in Fiction: Susan Jane Gilman & Joshua Ferris

“As an editor, I can help with writing or plot, but the one thing I cannot do is infuse a book with voice,” said Helen Atsma, Senior Editor, Grand Central Publishing, during the Hachette Hot gilmanReads webcast on April 29, cosponsored by Library Journal. “The voice is there, or it’s not.” The voice is certainly there in Susan Jane Gilman’s debut novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, featuring Lillian Dunkle, “a delicious, complicated antiheroine, Dr. Ruth in public and Leona Hemsley in private,” said Gilman, whose character endured a tough immigrant life that taught her to stand firm and do whatever was necessary to defend her family. The voice is also there in National Book Award finalist Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, which details the life of preoccupied New York dentist Paul O’Rourke, who resists religious belief and orders his life around baseball. “The voice comes first,” explained Ferris. “When writing a novel, one must write with some distinction, and that’s voice.”

Paul eventually takes a spiritual detour, investigating a tradition that Ferris invented but grounded in the existing tradition of the Hebrew bible—“otherwise, it wouldn’t be enough for a ferris2skeptic like Paul to take seriously,” acknowledged Ferris. As he leads Paul through the paces, Ferris aims to place us in familiar situations—we’ve been to the dentist, we’ve thought about religion, love, and marriage—and make us see them anew. Will readers discover the real human behavior that Ferris hopes to highlight through an “exaggerated premise”? Was Lillian’s questionable behavior justified by the strenuous circumstances of her life? By raising such issues, both books should make readers stay up late and book club meetings last well beyond their allotted time. Catch the voices of the authors themselves on the Hachette Hot Reads webcast, now archived.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.