When it comes to ap­pro­pri­at­ing other peo­ple’s sto­ries, writes nov­el­ists have long been in a class of their own

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kathryn Hey­man,

AT a party in Ox­ford, I met a wo­man who told me a story of a brief pe­riod in her youth. The story was quirky, strange, and I im­me­di­ately felt the stir­rings of ex­cite­ment I have learned to recog­nise as creative de­sire. Oddly, the feel­ings are not dis­sim­i­lar to any other kind of de­sire: the trem­ble in the belly, the dry mouth, the tum­bling, ter­ri­fied ex­ul­ta­tion. I held my tongue un­til the end of the evening, then cor­nered her and asked if I could steal her story.

But why did I even bother ask­ing? When Peter Carey pub­lished Theft: A Love Story last year, his for­mer wife Alison Sum­mers com­plained of an­other theft.

Carey’s novel, about an artist ‘‘ evis­cer­ated by di­vorce lawyers’’, cut too close to home for Sum­mers’s com­fort: she claimed that one of the sec­ondary char­ac­ters, the ‘‘ al­imony whore’’ of an ex- wife, was a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her; or rather, a mis­rep­re­sented ver­sion. In an in­ter­view in The Guardian , Sum­mers in­sisted on her right to de­fend her­self against lit­er­a­ture, ask­ing: ‘‘ Should we all lie down on the high­way and let the au­thor drive back and forth on top of us be­cause he is the au­thor?’’

And this is the tricky el­e­ment, isn’t it? Be­cause within the cre­ated world — as in the fic­tional world — the au­thor is in­deed god. So, yes; if you are a fic­tional char­ac­ter and the au­thor chooses to drive back and forth over you, then it’s shut up and put up. Or what­ever that say­ing is. How­ever, what if the char­ac­ter isn’t fiction, isn’t in­vented and isn’t happy?

For Bri­tish au­di­ences, this is familiar ter­ri­tory. In 1999 Hanif Kureishi pub­lished his fourth novel, In­ti­macy , about an Os­car- nom­i­nated writer choos­ing to leave his pub­lisher wife. Kureishi, an Os­car- nom­i­nated writer, sav­aged the fe­male char­ac­ter. His pub­lisher wife, Tracey Scoffield, whom he had just left, was pub­licly unim­pressed. For his part, Kureishi claimed: ‘‘ It’s the writer’s job to be ir­re­spon­si­ble. That’s what we’re paid to do. In a sense writ­ers have to say what isn’t sup­posed to be said.’’

The no­tion of the artist as be­ing out­side moral­ity — an el­e­vated be­ing, re­moved from mere con­straints of hu­man­ity — is at least as old as de Sade, and as short on sub­stance as that cliche of the artist in the gar­ret. Do writ­ers re­ally bear no re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sto­ries they choose to tell?

In 1809 William Dampier res­cued a young Scot, Alexan­der Selkirk, from an is­land off the coast of Chile. Selkirk — who had sailed with Dampier on an ear­lier pi­rat­ing ex­pe­di­tion — had been vol­un­tar­ily ma­rooned on the is­land four years ear­lier. His res­cue brought him a level of celebrity familiar to any ped­dler of sur­vival tales, and con­tem­po­rary re­ports have him lurch­ing from Lon­don pub to Lon­don pub, swap­ping a tale of over­com­ing the odds for a pint and pie.

It was only af­ter the jour­nal­ist Richard Steele in­ter­viewed Selkirk for The English­man that Daniel De­foe came across the tale and be­gan work on his first novel, Robin­son Cru­soe .

Did Selkirk own his per­sonal story? De­foe, in choos­ing to write the story as fiction, al­lowed him­self the right to make the story an al­le­gory, a tale of a man find­ing him­self and his civil­i­sa­tion. In De­foe’s ver­sion of Selkirk’s story, the is­land changes lo­ca­tion, his soli­tude be­comes in­stead a re­play­ing of Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ism, with Fri­day stand­ing in for the sub­ju­gated na­tions. Ar­guably, it is the fic­tion­al­is­ing that gives the writer li­cence.

Sum­mers and Scoffield, scorned wives, have both ar­gued that it’s the lack of fic­tio­nial­i­sa­tion that con­sti­tutes an eth­i­cal face slap.

Fic­tion­alised ver­sions of real peo­ple and real events are nei­ther new nor nec­es­sar­ily re­liant on close re­la­tion­ships. Dos­to­evsky’s The Demons was in­spired by a well- known mur­der case, as was Wilkie Collins’s The Wo­man in White . And be­fore them all, Homer’s tales of Troy were richly fab­ri­cated ver­sions of sto­ries that took place at the in­ter­face be­tween his­tory and leg­end. This fab­ri­ca­tion can get quite strange: there are web­sites, en­tire on­line uni­verses, de­voted to some­thing called ‘‘ real per­son fiction’’. Here you can find real peo­ple — by which I mean celebri­ties, or at least an imag­ined ver­sion of celebri­ties — liv­ing out al­ter­na­tive lives. Same names, same looks, same same, but dif­fer­ent. So Emma Wat­son works in a su­per­mar­ket, where she hopes the boy she likes, Jake Gyl­len­haal, will come to shop. Or Lind­say Lo­han dies trag­i­cally while run­ning across the road with her friend Paris to grab a bag of coke. In one tale, Chi­nese pop­stars Gil­lian Chung and Char­lene Choi ‘‘ work in a Bri­tish Cathouse that, you know, they have to work at. Well, that Cathouse is a sex house and they are the top sexy girls in that shop . . . they have sex with Mens.’’ Oh, how I wish I were mak­ing this up.

In some ways, though, th­ese on­line writ­ers, cre­at­ing sto­ries about school­boy Keanu and his pal Heath Ledger, a foot­baller, run­ning away from the law, are play­ing a ver­sion of Homer’s game, and of De­foe’s: that of tak­ing a celebrity and mak­ing a story from them, mould­ing the story to suit your own mes­sage, your own pur­pose. The theft of fact for the pur­poses of fiction is in­ter­wo­ven with the cre­ation of sto­ry­telling, and not merely in print.

When the Jane Austen biopic Be­com­ing Jane came out this year, many Austen schol­ars were hor­ri­fied at what they saw as a bla­tant fic­tion­al­i­sa­tion of a slim mo­ment in Austen’s life. Watch­ing the film — a love story — the au­di­ence is caught be­tween will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief ( I mean, we know Austen never glowed like that Anne Hath­away, but we want to watch her look­ing lovely) and the dis­com­fort of know­ing how the story ends.

Caught, in other words, be­tween the fiction of the film and the known facts. But, surely, a good sto­ry­teller finds the gaps in the facts of his­tory and fills in the flour­ishes.

I’ve used his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters in two of my nov­els: Ju­dith Bas­ti­aanz, a min­is­ter’s daugh­ter on board the Batavia in 1629, is the nar­ra­tor for The Ac­com­plice . The fact that I un­der­stand, and ex­pect my read­ers to un­der­stand, that my Ju­dith

is a lit­er­ary cre­ation, a con­struct based around the skele­ton of the facts, is in part a gift of post­mod­ernism. In my more re­cent novel, Cap­tain Starlight’s Ap­pren­tice , I based a cen­tral char­ac­ter — a cir­cus- per­form­ing film­star turned bushranger — on Jessie Hick­man, a for­mer rodeo rider who ended up liv­ing in a Blue Moun­tains cave. I wrote about th­ese women be­cause I was curious about their lives, about their mo­ment in his­tory, es­pe­cially about what the his­tor­i­cal record left out. Some­how there was a truth there that only fiction could reach.

This ap­pro­pri­a­tion is in­evitable: writ­ers are writ­ers partly be­cause of an in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity about peo­ple. For my money, writ­ing that mat­ters, that con­nects, has cu­rios­ity at its heart. Writ­ers of this sort are the ones who, like Proust, hear sto­ries, read snip­pets and won­der what it would be like to be that per­son, to know that per­son. Alan Gar­ner in his mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tion of es­says on writ­ing, The Voice that Thun­ders , writes of dis­cov­er­ing a cu­rios­ity about William Buck­ley, es­caped con­vict. On a meet­ing with a de­scen­dant of Buck­ley, Gar­ner is al­most over­whelmed by a sense of be­ing con­nected to Buck­ley the elder. As a writer, Gar­ner un­der­stands this con­nec­tion to be cre­ated by an imag­i­na­tive act, in the same way that the char­ac­ter of Buck­ley is cre­ated.

When the char­ac­ters are closer to home, though — when the char­ac­ters are based clearly on real peo­ple known to the writer, peo­ple who, as with Carey and Kureishi, might rather they were fic­tion­alised more thor­oughly — what then? To some ex­tent, of course, read­ers ( and jour­nal­ists) will al­ways as­sume a writer’s work to be au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. I’ve used fam­ily sto­ries, too, in my work: plun­dered them, you might say. And I didn’t flinch. I can trace the ge­n­e­sis of char­ac­ters, of sto­ry­lines, quite clearly to fam­ily mem­bers but I’m not sure that they would recog­nise them­selves. In the case of Cap­tain Starlight’s Ap­pren­tice , I imag­ined a wo­man who had such se­vere post­na­tal de­pres­sion that she at­tempted sui­cide and was hos­pi­talised. My mother had se­vere post­na­tal de­pres­sion and was hos­pi­talised. When I saw that this char­ac­ter was go­ing to hold some weight in the novel, I drove up to see my mother and asked her how she would feel about me ex­plor­ing this thread of her story. She shook her head: ‘‘ It won’t be my story, will it? It’ll be yours.’’ Even so, when I gave her a copy of the book, she was puz­zled : ‘‘ I thought it was about me?’’ Well it is. And it isn’t. Be­cause in or­der to find the truth of the thing, a writer some­times has to be un­loosed from the facts. And that means in­vent­ing. Oth­er­wise, write non­fic­tion. What Bri­tish writer Ti­mothy Gar­ton Ash calls ‘‘ the lit­er­a­ture of fact’’ and the lit­er­a­ture of fiction have some­thing im­por­tant in com­mon: they’re both lit­er­a­ture. And words, af­ter all, are tools of in­ven­tion.

As for that Ox­ford party and the wo­man with the quirky story I longed to ap­pro­pri­ate: she said no. She wanted to write a screen­play about it her­self. So ev­ery year I email her and ask her if she’s writ­ten it yet, and ev­ery year she emails back and says no, not yet. One of th­ese years I might just write it any­way. But you have to prom­ise not to tell. Kathryn Hey­man’s nov­els in­clude The Ac­com­plice and Cap­tain Starlight’s Ap­pren­tice. She will be a guest at next week­end’s By­ron Bay Writ­ers Fes­ti­val.

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