Fact and Fiction Re-visited
Janet Malcolm, in her masterly work on the biographies of Plath, makes an interesting point about fiction having more ‘truth’ than non-fiction. It’s fascinating to consider that in some respects fiction could be more true than nonfiction. Fiction is part of a closed world, all in the author’s mind, and even if the author deliberately leaves options open, that openness is part of the author’s created world. With nonfiction, there really is a truth that happened, but there are so many mediators between that truth and the reading audience, each interpreting the facts differently or choosing which facts to reveal, with some having a stake in how the story is presented and understood. How can one be sure of the truth?
What’s Fact, what’s Fiction? In ‘Capriccio’ I use the facts of Assia’s life as a scaffolding on which to build the deeper truth of emotions, thoughts and conversations, using fiction. For example, in my chapter entitled ‘Edge’, we know the facts are that Sylvia wrote a letter, and asked for stamps, on the night she took her life. The letter, if it was found, has never been disclosed. My excerpt from that letter is invented, an imagined version of what she might have written on that last day. The fictional letter from Sylvia contains the things Assia might have read about herself. We also know that Assia was shocked to read the vituperative language Sylvia wrote about Assia and David in the draft of Sylvia’s second novel, now also destroyed or lost. Sylvia’s last journal was subsequently destroyed.
What other writers have said:
‘When making up detail, you still have a structure to pin it on. The facts are a stimulus to the imagination, so you’re not inventing something in a vacuum. In a way, you’re inventing these things almost like a detective would. You come up with hypotheses that would make sense of the facts you’ve got. (e.g. the letter Sylvia wrote just before she died, for which she asked Dr Thomas for a stamp.) There is a wonderful kind of tug between the facts and the fiction.’ (from interview with Emma Donoghue, author of Room, based on the true case of the man who locked up his daughters for twenty years.)
Hannah Kent, in the author’s note to her brilliant award-winning novel, ‘Burial Rites’ says: Many known & established facts about Agnes’ life have been reproduced in this novel and events have either been drawn directly from the record or are the result of speculation. They are fictional likelihoods. If we substitute ‘Assia’ for ‘Agnes, the same could be said about my novel, ‘Capriccio’.
William Nicholson, the British author and screenwriter, wrote, in his reply to my email query re fact/fiction: As you may know I write fiction with real people in it a great deal, and have done since ‘Shadowlands’ dramatised the love life of C.S.Lewis. My own view is that it’s okay to do this so long as: a) you stick to the truth as far as it’s known; and b) where you invent to fill the gaps, you treat the real people generously.
I believe I’ve fulfilled both of these criteria, by following the facts meticulously, and filling gaps with the constant awareness of honouring the lives of my characters with compassion, and respect.