Monday, March 17, 2008

Who's that in your novel?

A very interesting and considered piece from David Jenkins in today's Guardian, about being portrayed in other people's novels. There's quite a bit of this in the news right now, partly because of the profile of the new Hanif Kureishi novel, and its something that I know has been blogged about quite a bit by other writers, like Elizabeth Baines. I guess the real person I've most written about is myself, so there's always a sense of who is being exposed here? But in 1995 when my novel "Lineage" was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize, my dad, not a reader, read it. He was mildly surprised to find that the first chapter included an episode where the father went out on an icy lake near where we live, and the ice broke. In the novel, the breakage is fatal, for dramatic purposes rather than any patricidal purpose - but dad was amazed I remembered the incident, so vividly, since I couldn't have been even five. "Write what you know" and "who you know" I guess is the sting in the tail. It's always interesting when you read a novel about a hated parent/sibling/lover - because its something that we can all relate to in parts, but also when it seems so real (particularly if its a first person novel), you're always wondering how much and what bits are real? I think its in this that writers do exercise a little bit of cruel power. The Divers in Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" are a pair of my favourite characters in literature, yet they were modelled on real people, who, their friends always insisted, were terribly treated in this wonderful novel. I've always used fragments of real people in my writing, but have found the most pleasure when I've managed - somehow - to make people up. Interestingly, as well, I think friends who read your work, are probably interested in whether you've ever used "them" in anyway, and it can be as simple as a line or a characteristic that then makes them go, "but that's me!" And we all do it, and always do it without permission. There's another way of identification of course; I was amused to find that Slatcher's is a butcher's shop in Mark Powell's "Snap", and the row of shops also includes the names of two other friends from the MA in novel writing we all studied together. He'd not told me, and it was only when reading the passing reference that I could appreciate the mention. Luckily, writers aren't usually interesting enough to be featured in other people's novels, it's something that we reserve for our friends, families, acquaintances.

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