Friday 18 October 2013

But Is It True? - Celia Rees

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. 

But really:

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.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I've read the book, many years ago. I have a vague memory of your including an email address, or was it a webaite? Mistake. These lend a feeling of truth. ;-)

Look, there are still kids out there who think that Go Ask Alice was a real journal or at least based on a true story. I have only recently had to break the bad news to one of my students. :-)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Actually, be glad that your story was so well done that people thought it must be true. Congratulations!

Unknown said...

I was one of those who thought the diary might actually be real when I read (and very much enjoyed) Witch Child at age 11 or 12. I never thought about the reasons you give above for why the novel couldn't possibly be a real one - the whole setup for the diary being "found" seemed completely realistic to me.

Sarah said...

Surely good fiction is true, even if it is not factual?

But I suppose it's your own fault for writing such a compelling and realistic story! :)

I'm writing a novel set in the seventeenth century, and some of the characters are real people who were alive at the time. I'm being careful not to make them do anything that they definitely NEVER did, or express views we know they never held, but the rest - and luckily there's a lot we don't know - I feel free to invent so long as it's plausible.

However, I agree with Hilary Mantel that if I put in something as a fact, I'd like to be sure it IS a fact

Celia Rees said...

The e mail address actually serves a literary purpose. It'part of the framing device and a way of linking Witch Child to the sequel, Sorceress. I thought it would be interesting to go from a 17th C diary to a 21st C e mail at the turn of the page.

Sally Zigmond said...

This often happens when a historical writer writes in the first person - whatever the period. When I began to write seriously years ago I once wrote a story about girl whose mother commits suicide just after World War II. I read it out at the writers' group I attended at the time. My audience were moved but assumed it was autobiographical. When I told them I wasn't alive in 1947 when the story was set and besides I had a happy very ordinary childhood they felt I'd lied to them! And they were writers (although none of us were published at the time)! Needless to say, I left that group shortly afterwards. Fiction is a sleight of hand even if contemporary but perhaps we should be flattered that the trick succeeds as you certainly did, Celia. It's the same phenomenon when actors who play nasty characters in TV soaps are accosted in the street.

Clare Mulley said...

I find the concept of truth fascinating. As a biographer I work hard to check my facts, but truths are even more elusive. There are moral truths and emotional truths. Feelings can be fabricated or deceptive, but still real, etc. perhaps I should blog from the other side on this one. Anyhow I have been criticised for not stretching my 'characters' more in my 'novel', so it works both ways I fear!

Celia Rees said...

I would certainly like to read that blog from the other side, Clare. That would be interesting. It's also good to know I'm not the only one this happens to, Sally.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Truth is subjective - and it sounds like you have done a wonderful job if your fictional world is truthful enough to have readers hungry for more facts. It reminds me of the hooha over William Boyd's fictional artist (Nat Tate?).

Unknown said...

It's slightly the same feeling as figuring out Santa. Absolutely loved the book (my favorite garage sale find), and will search for the sequel.