I'm surprised, and a little dismayed, by how many readers want to know if something I have written is true. It is as though readers want some, if not all, of what they are reading to be true, even if it is clearly not.
Does this happen to anyone else?
Is it a growing trend?
As a writer of fiction, I find this hunger for the actual puzzling. Since Witch Child was first published, I've received a steady stream of letters and e mails asking if the story contained within the pages is true. Witch Child takes the form of a diary or, more accurately, pieces of a diary, written by a girl in the 17th Century and hidden inside a quilt. The quilt is discovered, conservators find the diary, it is collated and published as The Mary Papers. Neat idea, I thought. I was quite unprepared for readers searching fruitlessly online for more information - all roads lead to me - and then taking me to task for lying, duping the reader, making things up. Should I laugh or cry? Making things up is what I do!
Witch Child is a book within a book. It is a story about a story. It uses the literary device of the 'found document', a tradition as old as the novel itself with a respectable literary history that stretches from Daniel Defoe to Margaret Atwood.
The 'found' diary in Witch Child couldn't possibly be a real diary (I tell readers) because:
- Real diaries are usually full of trivial, mundane details of everyday life. Which is because they are diaries. Once you begin tinkering about, editing out this or that, adding things in to make something more exciting, you are actually beginning to write fiction.
- There ARE no existent journals or diaries written by young women at the time I've set Witch Child, which is a bit of a point in itself.
- Even if there were, they would be almost unreadable by the modern reader because of the style and language, especially my readers who are 12+.
So the answer to the Is It True question has to be:
No. I am a writer of fiction. Of course it's not true!
Or, to be more accurate:
No, well, not in the way you're thinking. It is made up, patched together out of many different truths.
What is truth, anyway?
It is very difficult to have any entirely truthful account of anything. Everyone knows that eye witness accounts of the same incident can vary enormously. One person will notice one thing, someone else another. Even when an incident is forensically examined over and over again, as in the Madeleine McCann case, new versions of the same event keep being uncovered. Which is true? Perhaps all of them are, to some extent. Or none. Perhaps nobody saw, nobody knew for sure. Enter the omniscient narrator. Fiction can take all these inexact, fragmented view points and fashion them into a whole. When we are reading, we seek these patterns. Fiction can get to the essence of the thing, create a different truth.