New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar has written a book on people who are wholly devoted to helping others called Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. At least a few of the books’ subjects were first profiled in the NYer by MacFarquhar, including this amazing story of a couple who adopted 20 children and a Japanese monk confronting his culture’s suicide problem.
David Wolf of The Guardian recently wrote about MacFarquhar and her unique writing style, writing from the perspective of her subjects, like they themselves had written the piece.
MacFarquhar attributes her restlessness with form to getting “productively bored”: “For a profile, I do try to make the piece sound and feel as though it were written by the person themselves, rather than by me. What I’m trying to get at is a sense of intimacy, a sense that you are, insofar as is possible, inside the mind of the person, so that you understand why they’re in love with the ideas they fell in love with, what moves them, what drives them.”
These principles guide most of her stylistic decisions. Anything that diminishes the immediacy of the reader’s access to her subject is thrown out. “People think I’m a total freak for not using the first person,” she says. “The way I think about it is that if you’re making a conventional feature film, all it takes is for the director to walk across the camera just once and you have a completely different relationship to the whole story. For that reason, even though it sometimes means sacrificing great scenes, I take myself out.”
What point of view is that? It’s like a mix of first person and third person. Is one-third person POV a thing?
I loved this profile of novelist Hilary Mantel written by Larissa MacFarquhar. Not just for the subject matter but the lyrically novelistic way in which it’s written.
During this time, she discovered that her house was haunted. It wasn’t only she who felt it-she overheard adults talking about the ghosts as well. She realized that they were as frightened as she was, and were helpless to protect her. She already understood that the world was denser and more crowded than her senses could perceive: there were ghosts, but even those dead who were not ghosts still existed; she was used to hearing talk in which family members alive and dead were discussed without distinction. The dead seemed to her only barely dead.
Until she was twelve or so, she was deeply religious. “When you’re inculcated with religion at such an early age, or when you’re receptive to it, as I was, you become preoccupied with the unseen reality,” she says. “This other world, the next world, to me in my childhood seemed just as real as the world I was living in. It wasn’t that I had a mental picture of it — it was that I never questioned its existence. I used to conduct a lot of imaginary conversations with God. I don’t think Jesus was any less real to me than my aunts and uncles; the fact that I happened not to be able to see him was pretty irrelevant to me.”
She felt, as a child, in a permanent state of sin. There was something terribly wrong about her, for which she was to blame, but which she had only limited ability to change. Catholic guilt continued to grip her even after she stopped believing in God. Her family’s misery was encompassing and bewildering, and was it not likely that she was responsible for making her parents so unhappy? Might they not, without her, have a chance at a better life? But these suspicions were not so powerful as the effect of a thing that happened to her one day that she cannot explain.
That “thing that happened” was seeing… well, I don’t want to spoil it. Mantel wrote Wolf Hall, a recent favorite of mine, and a few days after this profile ran in the New Yorker, she won the Man Booker Prize for her new novel, Bring Up the Bodies.