Who better than Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, author of the masterful Swan Song, to chat to our BPA Long Writing Weekend crew about the writer’s palette? Kelleigh opened her session with a quote from writer Truman Capote, who inspired her fictionalised debut novel.
“Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”― .
Before the session, Kelleigh asked attendees to send in examples of evocative fiction. Here’s what the group came up with:
“Again the ranch is on the market and they’ve shipped out the last of the horses, paid everybody off the day before, the owner saying, ‘Give them to the real estate shark, I’m outta here,” dropping the keys in Ennis’s hand. He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream.”
“It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.”
“There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook. The stove caught fire in my presence; the postman had fallen off his bicycle at the gate and been bitten by Charlemagne, our sheepdog, whose policy it was to attack people only when they were down.”
– Pamela Frankau, A Wreath for the Enemy
“I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful.”
“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”
Kelleigh then shared a little about how she developed the voice of Swan Song. She said she started out with a master plan, but when she passed around her excerpt in a masterclass a lot of the writers had different ideas and someone suggested that ‘we’ is who the characters of her novel, the swans, were. She wrote a chapter in collective POV to prove this person wrong and the feedback she received was incredible. This chapter of the novel is the same in the published book as it was in that workshop submission.
As time went on, people started to say that they wanted to see Capote in the novel. Kelleigh went home, didn’t write for a week, and the day she had to submit for the next workshop she wrote a chapter about Truman as a child.
All the names she wrote into this section were people Kelleigh’s mother and grandmother grew up with, and all the phrases she included were things they would say. (She read an excerpt from this section and the phrase ‘each dumber than a bucket of hair’ stuck in my head.)
Kelleigh said she wrote for another year and a half after making these two significant changes, then writer’s block hit. She knew how bad it was when her husband commented that he didn’t hear any clicking from her keypad anymore. She felt that the women of her novel, the swans, the collective, were stuck in the chorus. She wanted each to sing. Her husband asked, ‘What would each of them be singing?’ From there she was able to write sections in each individual woman’s perspective. With each of them, their lives dictated the form that their solo, if they were a piece of music, would be. Kelleigh deconstructed music and built their chapters around it. One became a fandango, one became a Mexican folk ballad. Once she had the form, she knew what to do.
‘Had I ever stuck to the original plan or outline, I would never have gotten there.’
She wrote her favourite chapter, the penultimate, in forty-eight hours prior to submitting because the swan image came. This one image obviously had a huge impact on the novel. She also said she wouldn’t have got there without Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, which is an excellent example of a collective POV, or Elaine Dundy’s unreliable narrator. ‘It all comes together,’ she said. ‘What you’ve read, someone you grew up with, something someone said on holiday…
The writer’s palette is made up of all these influences. You don’t realise it until you look back.’
After sharing about her journey of writing Swan Song, Kelleigh read some of her own examples of brilliant evocative fiction.
“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
She had watched them in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscopes in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamb chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the Sunday morning paper, the early edition with the comics wrapped outside. They would be very pretty some of the time, their skirts the right length and their sunglasses the right tint and maybe only a little vulnerable tightness around the mouth, but there they were, one lamb chop and some cat food and the morning paper. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household, gallons of grapefruit juice, quarts of green chile salsa, dried lentils and alphabet noodles, rigatoni and canned yams, twenty-pound boxes of laundry detergent. She knew all the indices to the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine in her shopping cart. The house in Beverly Hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and Spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese.
– Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
He had been right about me. I had been a rich man’s darling all right. A very rich man’s darling. And very cherished. And indulged. And cosseted. And adored. But only until I was twelve.
– Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me
‘Steal from the masters. They’re all there,’ Kelleigh said.
She reminded us of Capote’s words: ‘rearrange the rules to suit yourself.’ You learn from the best, you bend the rules to suit your purposes, and you make them your own.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Kelleigh lives between Los Angeles and London. She earned a BFA (Directing) from Carnegie Mellon University, studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and has been honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a Finalist for the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, among numerous screenwriting accolades. She was awarded the Abroad Fellowship in Provence in 2006, where the germ of an idea for a novel about Truman Capote’s betrayal of his inner circle was born. After a decade of research, Kelleigh began Swan Song, her debut novel, in the UEA/ Guardian Masterclass, completing it four years later on the UEA Prose Fiction MA, from which she graduated with Distinction.
Prepublication, Swan Song was the winner of the Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman Andrews Award for a first novel, was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and shortlisted for the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award, the Myriad Editions First Drafts Competition and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize.
Swan Song was published in 2018 by Penguin Random House/ Hutchinson. It was the winner of the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize, was named one of the Books of the Year by The Times, and was longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Kelleigh is currently working on a new screen play for TV as well as adapting Swan Song as a limited TV series. She is also working on a second novel.