Thursday, 26 February 2009
Me Myself and I
As writers, we naturally like to think of ourselves as imaginative people. People who can weave a story out of thin air, pull sparkling and arresting characters from the ether, create Machievellian twists and turns of plot with audacious creative flair. We follow the whims of fancy, allowing them to take us where they wish, until at the end of it, we have a story or a novel – hopefully original, possibly unique, but definitely MADE UP.
Well, unfortunately, our friends and family are unlikely to see it the same way. In some little corner of their minds, no matter how unacknowledged, they will be harbouring a conviction. Oh, you might tell them that your novel is based on nothing but your own imagination, but they know the truth. They know that, really, it’s all about you. It’s an autobiography, thinly disguised as fiction, and by reading it, they are going to discover all your deepest darkest secrets. Let the hunt commence!
My debut novel, THE ART OF LOSING, is not what you would call a cheery tale. Over the course of its 80,000 words, I cover death, loss, grief, infidelity, incest and plenty more besides. Funnily enough, it is not an autobiographical novel. If I had that much drama in my life, I think I’d have my hands full dealing with it, let alone having enough time to put finger to keypad. And yet I am uneasily aware of that all-too-common perception, that novelists (and debut novelists in particular) write about what they know. “It’s very good,” a friend said to me encouragingly, upon reading an advance copy of my book. “But…” Her voice dropped, taking on a diffident, caring tone. “I didn’t know you felt that way about relationships.” What way, I politely enquired. “Well, you know…” I listened to a summary gleaned from various pronouncements made by my novel’s two narrators. Useless to protest that these were only characters, that their thoughts and feelings did not necessarily tally with my own. By creating them, I had apparently taken ownership of them too.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that our own opinions, emotions and relationships never trickle down into our work. In fact, it took a cautious suggestion from my mother for me to realise that one of my narrators, Nicholas, bore more than a passing similarity to my own father, both physically and in character. I protested that any resemblance was purely accidental, but privately, looking back at what I had written, I wondered how it could have been. All at once I was struck by a terrible thought – what if my novel actually was a 240-page confessional tome, and I hadn’t even realised it? I found myself poring over the words, wondering if I had let too much of myself slip into the story. It’s a dangerous business, this writing – it opens you up to scrutiny, not only from your readers but from yourself too.
Eventually, I called a truce with myself. I know that my novel is far from being based on personal experience, but at the same time, it is me – it has come out of my head, and so even when my characters do and say things that I would never do in real life, I can’t entirely disassociate myself from them. I wonder if any of us could truly say that our work was devoid of autobiographical elements? On that note, I’ll leave you. I’m off to plot a murder to lay the ground for a little crime idea I’ve got bubbling…