On the Present Tense

ZILKA: You wrote Edinburgh not only in first person, but also in PRESENT TENSE. I was like, “Wow”–because present tense (like second person) is one of the toughest things to pull off in a long piece, like a novel. Were you conscious of this while writing? How did you come to the decision to write Edinburgh in present tense, and then what were key elements to making it work?

CHEE: I was conscious of it. I didn’t realize there was something like a rule. It was more like, I turned in a draft to my agent of the time that had 90 pages in past tense and 35 in the present, and she said, “It really picks up after page 90.” So I went and looked, and laughed when I realized what she was talking about. It was intuitive, which typically means, to me at least, “The answer to this was woven from hundreds of abstruse insights hidden from me and from direct observation by outsiders, but nonetheless is correct.”

Later, it made sense, or I could explain it—people retell stories of traumatic events in the first person, typically. I think the first key element to making it work was to imagine the characters speaking almost like from after their deaths, as if you were Odysseus and you’d poured out blood for the ghosts. I had to imagine someone telling me something they’d never tell anyone, ever, in their lives.

But also, another, for the reader, is that while it is in the present tense, the story is not “in the present”, which is to say, the reader is always made aware of the future in small ways, and that the narrator is someone speaking from the other side of “how it all turned out”. Also known as the I-Narrator/I-Character divide. The I-Character is the figure standing in for the narrator who doesn’t know how it all turns out, and the narrator knows—that’s how they’re the narrator. Understanding your narration this way is the key to using and sustaining the present tense, or any first-person narrative, for that matter.

From Christine Lee Zilka’s interview of me, over at Kartika Review.


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