Other People’s Words

by Lissa Soep

(Spiegel & Grau, March 2024)


What lies behind the story of Lissa Soep’s book, Other People’s Words? (Spiegel & Grau, March 2024). And how does the author create such realistic dialogue?

Lissa’s unusual tale of love, loss and friendship is about real people, what it is like to lose someone, and how we carry their voices on after they are gone.

In talking with Authorlink’s Doris Booth, Lissa shares her struggles to write the book over the course of eight years. One of the secrets to completing her book, was to reach out to writing communities and form close relationships with other writers.

A strategy she uses to make the dialogue realistic is to “write for the ear.” She strives to hear the characters speaking to her.  As a graduate student Lissa discovered the philosophy of Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote about the many voices that can echo through a single person’s speech.  The teachings of Bakhtin showed her how to listen to what the philosopher called “double voicing,” listening to the varied layers of our words.

In Other People’s Words, Lissa Soep and her boyfriend, then in their twenties, forged deep friendships with two other couples—Mercy and Christine; and Emily and Jonnie—until, decades later, Jonnie died suddenly, in an accident, and Christine passed away after a mysterious illness. Christine had been a writer, Jonnie a storyteller. Lissa couldn’t imagine a world without their letters, postcards, texts—a world without their voices. Suddenly, Bakhtin’s theory that our language is “filled to overflowing with other people’s words” came to life.

Lissa began hearing Jonnie and Christine when least expected. In a conversation with Emily, a familiar phrase was spoken, and suddenly, there was Jonnie, with his riotous laugh, vibrant in her mind. Mercy recited an Adrienne Rich poem in just the way Christine used to and, for a moment, Christine was with them in the room.

Other People’s Words shows us how we carry within us the language of loved ones who are gone, and how their words can be portals to other times and places. Language—as with love—is boundless, and Other People’s Words is an intimate, original, and profoundly generous look at its power to nurture life amid the wreckage of grief. Dialogues do not end when a friendship or person is gone; instead, they accrue new layers of meaning, showing how the conversations we share with those we love continue after them, and will continue after us.