Saturday, 19 January 2013

Stranger than Fiction or You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

The award winning American author E. L. Doctorow has been quoted as saying, “I am led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction; there is only narrative.”

We all have different versions of the same events. So is truth a subjective concept? And how does truth apply to fiction, which is, essentially, make-believe?

In the essay called The Story of my Life in 3500 Words or Less* (by journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron, who sadly passed away last year) the writer observed, “I can’t understand why anyone would write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing.”

Authors are frequently advised to write about what they know or from personal experiences.  When I was younger I used to think that the more real and true an incident or storyline, the more authentic and believable it would be to the reader.  It is only in recent years that I can see this was a fallacy. Self-delusion. The fact that something actually happens doesn’t make for a better, or for that matter, worse story.  What happened is almost irrelevant, compared to how the writer relates this to the reader.  The most outrageous propositions can be made plausible with a skilful writer.

In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I got locked in the toilets at the local cinema with a group of my friends after the film had finished, as a result of staff negligence.  It was scary (all the lights went out, so we were in total darkness), spooky, and completely bizarre.  We managed to make our way to the main entrance, eventually, which looked out onto the street and we banged on the glass doors and shouted “Help” repeatedly before anyone would stop and listen.  The few passers-by ignored us, or hurried by.  When, eventually, the police arrived, they assumed we had deliberately got ourselves locked in to vandalise the place.  The Cinema Manager had to be called to unlock the doors,  and he drove back in a foul mood (he had been drinking and reeked of alcohol).  I pointed this out to the policemen, who appeared to have no interest in this fact, and our names and addresses were demanded.  We were terrified of what our parents would say if we were arrested, (and may have given false names) but we were finally left to walk home alone (having missed the last bus and not enough money for a taxi).  Four teenage girls.  Nearly midnight.  I was livid at the way we had been treated.  Our parents didn’t believe us, so I contacted the local press (I was a feisty little so and so!), who showed initial interest in the story and then backed down after speaking to the police.  That was the end of it.
Years later, I included the incident in the first draft of one of my teen novels, but was advised by my agent and publisher that this all seemed rather far-fetched, unrealistic and would I please omit it from the story. Initially I was frustrated, pleading my case. But I changed it. Many years later, I realised that they were right.  Including every detail of what happened didn’t add to the story. It wasn’t needed.

The book was Matty and the Moonlight Horse.  And the idea for the book came from that late night walk home after getting locked in the cinema and taking a short cut through the graveyard.  With me thinking, in the way that my pony-mad teenage brain operated, “What if we encountered a runaway horse by the tombstones?” 

Anyway, you will find in Matty and the Moonlight Horse that I modified real events so that Matty and her friends leave the cinema late because one of them insists on queuing for pizza, so they miss the last bus home, take a shortcut through the graveyard, and as the church bell strikes midnight……well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next. 

*in the collection I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

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