I spend a lot of time thinking about the documentary film Grizzly Man. Particularly about how filmmaker Werner Hertzog handled one piece of material: the audio recording of his subject, the nature activist Timothy Treadwell, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, being killed and partially eaten by a bear, alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Incredibly, Treadwell’s video camera was recording, with the lens cap on, during the fatal bear attack, so the whole thing was captured on audio. In the film Herzog shows the back of his own head, with headphones on, listening to the audio for the first time. We only see him from behind. But we see the face of the woman sitting across from him, Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend and business partner Jewel Palovak, who holds the video camera in her lap. She is watching Herzog so closely as he listens.
We see the slight tremble of his head and shoulders, the way he holds his hand to his eyes, and shakes a little, as if he is crying. Then he says, in a broken voice: “Can you turn it off?”
We see Herzog slowly remove the headphones, and look at Jewel. They look at each other and don’t speak. She appears blank, expectant, sheepishly amused, destroyed – the micro expressions chase each other across her face as she observes his. Then she sees something there that makes her start crying.
There is a long silence and then he tells her: “Jewel, you must never listen to this.”
I’m interested in building a story with as few supporting pieces as possible. A girl in the woods, making a little house with sticks. How many sticks do you need for it to stand up on its own? Or like a sketch of three lines, four lines, five. I want to see how few lines it is possible to use before a figure emerges. Or rather, is suggested, but not shown in high definition. You need to allow room for the reader’s imagination to operate – that’s where it becomes a living thing.
My story in the current issue of The Lonely Crowd, ‘Property Maintenance Record for 9 Victoria Terrace’, was written in June 2016. Broadly, it addresses otherness, and how it is encountered by the ‘us’ of common consent pulled up over Brexit Britain like a security blanket. There is fear beneath that blanket; the fear of the other, of difference, of foreignness. I wanted to look at how people explain that to themselves or do not. I wanted to hold that blanket up and show how thin and shabby it is.
But I wanted to do it like Herzog, at a remove. So the parts remain granular. You do not see the main character. You do not see inside her house. Instead, you hear from a succession of characters, with the action recounted second- or third-hand through their speech, interspersed with the voice of an official record advancing the narrative. There are challenges in moving the reader’s perspective around so obliquely and between so many people; each time you introduce another one it’s disruptive. I’m currently reading Jon McGregor’s excellent first book If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things where these challenges are handled, over the long haul of a novel, with great skill and daring.
And every time emotion is translated through another person it picks up something of them, some power, in the passing. Herzog the master storyteller chose not to show us everything, to give us only a little, second or third-hand. Why? It’s not that he thinks we can’t handle it. It’s that he knows our imagined audio will be so much more powerful than the real thing – especially if he shows us someone imagining it themselves, right there in front of him. “Jewel, you must never listen to this,” Herzog said. He tells her that she must destroy the tape, that she must not keep it, that it would be the white elephant in her room all her life. But watch the clip. You know exactly what’s on that tape he listened to, don’t you? You know the sound of their death because you’ve heard it in your head already. And once you’ve heard it, it’s almost impossible to unhear.
Kate Feld’s essays and short fiction have appeared in Minor Literature[s], Neon, Caught by the River, Banshee and Entropy (forthcoming). She runs creative nonfiction journal and reading series The Real Story. She lives in Manchester, UK and tweets @katefeld.
You can read ‘Property Maintenance Record for 9 Victoria Terrace’ in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd.
Words © Kate Feld, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.