Transference by Kate Jonuska: How to Read Like a Writer
Do you prefer books with magic and powers or the contemporary world? Do you like archetypal characters or ones who seem like real people? Often literary and genre fiction are at odds, but in Transference Kate Jonuska brings the two together through an extremely close third person point of view, snarky humor, and inner character conflict.
Dr. Derek Verbank’s Private Fantasies
Transference is written from Dr. Verbank’s point of view in third person close. This means Dr. Verbank is not speaking directly to the audience, telling his story, but trust me, readers still get up close and personal with his self-deprecating thought processes, insecurities, and sexual fantasies. The book begins with:
For a mistake that ruined his life, the sex should at least have been good, but no. The orgasm that cost Dr. Derek Verbank his job at his prestigious psychiatric practice had been mediocre at best. Seriously, he’d had better climaxes in his hand in the shower than with the patient . . . (1)
Dr. Verbank is an excellent example of a character who might have been too much if the story had been written in first person. Plus, his reliability as a narrator would be questionable, and believability is key to the novel’s plot when a patient with a newly-developed, remarkable power walks into his office. Despite the third person point of view, readers still see Dr. Verbank’s inner thoughts and feelings and are pretty much as close to the character as third person can get.
Third person makes it clear when Dr. Verbank is actively thinking and when the author is setting the scene, tone, or describing the characters. Readers can see both Dr. Verbank’s view of the world and the author’s. This tempers the volatile characters’ opinions with more factual descriptions. For example, Dr. Verbank likes women’s butts. However, the reader sees the whole woman plus his favorite body part. If the novel had been in first person, readers would only get Dr. Verbank’s skewed world view and a lot of butts. Transference is an excellent example of when third person close is the ideal point of view, and authors worried third person might put too much distance between the reader and the character should look at this novel to see how close this point of view can get.
Transference’s humor is shown in the first sentences quoted above where Dr. Verbank assesses the quality of his indiscretion. This same dark humor is woven throughout the novel. This works because it is the humor of the characters. Both Janet and Dr. Verbank share a somewhat pessimistic opinion of other people, especially each other. This allows for witty exchanges designed to challenge each other. For example, when Dr. Verbank attempts to convince Janet to test the limits of her new ability:
Janet stomped a foot ineffectively in the cushy grass. “Is this absolutely necessary?”
“When a neighborhood republican sends you melting into a corner,” he [Dr. Verbank] answered, “then yes, I think so. I think you can handle some distant, mild exposure to a harmless stoner” (126).
Humor built into the characters and story like this is so much more effective than humor for humor’s sake. It becomes central to the story instead of a gimmick, and in that way is more real and genuine. It is a part of the overall tone and individual characters. Authors looking to add humor to their own writing should read books like Transference to study how to make humor essential to the story instead of something added on.
According to the English Oxford Dictionary, magical realism is “a literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy.” Often, magical realism is literary fiction and has one surreal element with the rest of the story aligning with what we know as the real world. Jonuska’s novel definitely has these qualities but appeals to a larger audience than most literary works. Because her magical element is a power often granted to super heroes, Transference appeals to fantasy and science fiction readers. However, the characters’ reactions to this ability are atypical, which keeps the book from becoming the kind of formulaic writing many literary readers dislike in genre fiction.
Along those same lines, Jonuska expertly weaves together the characters and the plot, so Transference appeals to readers looking for character-driven stories and readers who need things to happen. By delving into Dr. Verbank and Janet’s strengths, flaws, and desires, Jonuska creates inner conflicts in both main characters that inform and influence the outer conflicts they face. Dr. Verbank battles self-doubt and insecurities while Janet fights to overcome anxiety and accept her newly developed ability. These flaws directly imped the characters’ desires: Dr. Verbank wants to regain his professional esteem and Janet wants her power to go away.
While the internal struggles are the core conflict, external obstacles like the two characters’ relationship, other patients, and a bus add action and directly challenge any progress the characters’ may have made. By focusing on the characters’ desire to change and grow, Jonuska prevents Transference from becoming purely plot or character-driven. This is something all authors should strive for because most readers want memorable characters and things to happen to them.
Support from a Professional Editor
As an editor, writer, and former MFA student, I find the polarizing rift between literary and genre writing frustrating and at times infuriating. I want writing to have solid, elegant, vivid prose and action. I want to dive deep inside characters and watch them do things and interact with their world. I believe literary and genre writers can a great deal from each other. Jonuska’s novel is an outstanding example of this. By combining a super power from genre fiction and troubled characters often found in literary stories, she fused the two categories into the kind of story that stays with readers. Humor, magical realism, and third person close point of view converge to Ignite the Ink of Transference and they can do the same for you.
What do you think about the characters in Transference? Let me know in the comments and if you haven't read the novel, click on the image on the left. Subscribe below to receive more reading recommendations like this from Ignite Your Ink blog and to receive your free list of 13 Writing Craft Books.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.