Monday, April 28, 2008

Katherine Ramsland on Voice

Dave Hall, Tym Burkey, and Katherine Ramsland
Into the Devil's Den: How an FBI Informant Got Inside the Aryan Nations
and a Special Agent Got Him Out Alive

Publisher: Ballantine
Pub date: April 2008
Agent: Kim Lionetti

(Click to Buy)

Please note: Dave Hall and Tym Burkey are clients of BookEnds; Katherine Ramsland is represented by John Silbersack at Trident Media Group.

"You're Not Losing Your Voice, You’re Gaining Another's"
by Katherine Ramsland

I have been an FBI profiler, a bestselling author of vampire novels, a law professor who digs up the dead, and a tattooed biker from Kentucky, and yet I’m none of these things. I’m a coauthor and biographer, and the trick to making that work so everyone’s happy is to create an authentic voice.

To accomplish this—at least for me—it takes intense immersion, wherein over the course of a project I try to experience my day-to-day world through someone else’s perspective. I read what they read, watch what they watch, listen to music they like, meet people they know, and visit places that mean something to them. (For fiction, this means total immersion in your character analysis.) It’s fun, even exciting, but it’s all done in the interest of focus and voice. If I want readers to feel close to the people I’m writing with or about, I must get close to them myself. While this intimate art can risk your sense of balance, if done well you can fully tell a story through a voice not your own.

Let’s consider this notion of a writer’s voice, because it’s foundational to fiction, narrative nonfiction, and even certain technological pieces. Opinion columnists rely on a distinct voice, as do movie and book reviewers. Bloggers certainly need it if they want to maintain interest, and even how-to manuals benefit from a distinct and colorful attitude. So do memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies. There’s no need to belabor the point; getting the voice right matters. It defines how characters, real or imagined, think and speak.

Voice conveys attitude, motivation, and credibility, providing the tone through which character and setting are rendered. If you have multiple points of view, as I did with the duo-memoir of Into the Devil’s Den, you work doubly hard to become both people. (The same holds true for multiple points of view in fiction.) You must learn their belief systems, their typical word choices, their cultural background, the parameters of their experience and education, and even how they use words in a sentence. Ultimately, it’s the attitude that makes each voice distinct.

Before describing how I developed the voices for this book, let me first give some context. The FBI, just recovering from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was expanding its domestic terrorism program and needed informants to infiltrate the Aryan Nations, the most dangerous white supremacy group in the country. Special Agent Tym Burkey worked out of Ohio, where a particularly fiendish AN member, Ray Redfeairn, was using his pulpit to connect with other white power groups. Burkey needed someone who could win over these paranoid militants, and circumstances brought him together with Dave Hall, a tattooed, 350-pound, six-foot-four former biker with a photographic memory and a firm sense of decency. Hall agreed to take the job.

As he penetrated this violent society of hatemongers, he looked to Burkey to watch his back, while Burkey prayed that Hall would not be seduced by Redfeairn’s manipulations. Neither quite knew what to expect from the other, so to convey this tension the story unfolds through their shifting perspectives, and the way their partnership evolved into an unlikely friendship sets Into the Devil’s Den apart from every other undercover tale. In the process, they helped stop another major bombing and an assassination.

To “dance with the devil,” Hall developed innovative strategies to maintain his role and avoid being “erased,” even as it battered his health and cost him relationships. He learned the specialized vocabulary, gestures, and mannerisms expected of insiders, and had to deal with suspicious members who tested his loyalty. Because he was so good at it, he earned several promotions, which gave him unprecedented access to the top brass. Here’s where the need for distinct voices occurs: What Burkey relates about the group that Hall infiltrates heightens the sense of suspense, because the reader gets privileged access to information—and awareness of danger—that Hall does not know. The necessity for him of working blind spices his side of the tale with a heightened anxiety that only Burkey’s friendship can assuage. Burkey just hopes he can keep Hall alive.

The task for me was to take what Hall had written as a daily journal and shape it into a suspenseful story with a clear narrative structure. Then I interviewed Burkey and sent him questions for written answers so that, in strategic places, I could slice in his perspective to advance the story without impeding the pace. That meant getting Burkey to talk about his feelings, too, because he had to grow beyond his role as an agent and come alive as a person. Hall’s was the easy voice, because he wrote the way he talked, in a good ol’ boy manner that was effortless to absorb. Burkey’s personality was more formal, although he was very easy to talk to as well, but it required more attention. The great thing about these two was how distinct their voices were, and my job was to preserve that quality. I did that by making each a foil for the other whenever I could. Response and reaction were key interactions.

There’s one more angle on the mastery of voice I want to mention: protecting the voice through the editorial process. There were things that different editors wanted to change and sometimes I accepted that, but often I had to call Burkey or Hall, because I sensed the request violated who they were. Putting words into Burkey’s mouth that he’d never say, for example, or eliminating a peculiar phrase that Hall naturally used seemed to make them different from who they were, so I was prepared to fight for the integrity of the narrative. Sometimes I lost, but mostly I used the writer’s trusty friend, “stet” (leave it alone!), and got it through.

Although writing this book was a real challenge, it has been one of my most interesting experiences as a coauthor. I’d already penned two biographies via my immersion method and had cowritten four books, so I had some experience with losing my voice and acquiring another’s, but immersing in two people while crafting a story’s structure was often daunting. I was the one who decided where Burkey’s voice should cut in, so the pace was fully my responsibility, and sometimes with immersion you lose your perspective. But in the end, it seems to work. Several readers have affirmed it, and I hope many others will feel the same.

It’s not just an undercover procedural, it’s the story of an unlikely friendship: There are amusing moments, poignant ones, and harrowing incidents as Dave Hall and Tym Burkey move together through this treacherous landscape. There’s even a chapter that has made grown men cry (and me, too). But for me, it was another step in the art of crafting voice and privileged access to two men who bravely made a significant difference. Thanks to them, the AN took a critical blow from which it may never fully recover.


Sean McLachlan said...

Long live "stet"! You do have to pick your battles with editors, though. I tend to let some changes slide so I have more leverage for the things I think are really important.

I'm glad these two FBI agents were able to give the Aryan Nation a bloody nose, but the hardcore white supremacists aren't the main danger. When a Kentucky Congressman can call Obama a "boy" at a fundraiser and get applauded for it, you know this country has some issues.

And no, I'm not a fan of Obama. I just think it's time for white Americans to grow up.

KatherineRamsland said...

I agree, Sean, that writers must choose what's best to ague, and then offer a good case. I also agree about this country's racism, although we've come a long way, too.

Anonymous said...

This is not a book I would normally read, but having read this, I will probably get it. Thanks for posting this.

KatherineRamsland said...

Great! I think peple can read it for a lot of different reasons and come away enriched.

Kate Douglas said...

Fascinating post--I recognize the importance of voice in my fiction, (I also "become" my characters, but they are entirely my own creations) The idea of essentially channeling two individuals who actually exist is pretty mind-boggling. That's got to be a daunting experience, especially knowing they'll be reading the finished product! Thank you for a really interesting post.

kitty said...

To accomplish this—at least for me—it takes intense immersion, wherein over the course of a project I try to experience my day-to-day world through someone else’s perspective. -- Like method acting. That's great advice.

A word on words...
Feeling free to say what's on your mind, even hateful garbage, is sometimes a good thing -- hurt feelings aside.


KatherineRamsland said...

Yes, it's like method acting, where you seem to blend into another person's perspective. Since they were both great guys, it wasn't too difficult, but in the end, they had the final say. Sometimes I had to let go of my personal additions.

Robena Grant said...

-ultimately it's the attitude that makes each voice distinct-

I love that. I do hours of character mapping to make my characters distinct, yet they often are too similar. My guess is I've not dug deep enough into their individual attitude about life. Thanks for that tip.

I first read about you on Jenny Crusie's blog. You've written about some incredible subject matter over the years. This book sounds fabulous!

KatherineRamsland said...

Thanks, Robena. Glad to help. I've been very lucky in my writing career, not just with interesting subjects but also with supportive editors and agents, as well as contact with other writers. I'm always learning new things.

Julie Weathers said...

This was fascinating. I'm glad you shared your thoughts on this. Of course, now I am seriously second guessing if my characters are unique enough.