The Truth is Out There

First off, apo­lo­gies for the two incon­gru­ous posts pri­or to this one. I’m using the blog to host some con­tent, so I need a page to ‘point to’ for each of my cur­rent works-in-pro­gress, the tech­no­thrill­er Flashback and the com­edy Proper Job.

Second off, the next instal­ment of Déjà Vu is up on the pod­cast feed.

The whole thing about James Frey con­tin­ues to spark gos­sip among the liter­ati. Frey, of course, had a huge hit last year with his redemp­tion mem­oir A Million Little Pieces. Then a web­site called The Smoking Gun dis­covered that he had fab­ric­ated sig­ni­fic­ant por­tions of the manu­script — he wasn’t such a bad boy after all, appar­ently — and, presto, Frey had an even huger hit. To be fair, he has evis­cer­ated him­self with a sword handed to him by Oprah Winfrey, but there is no such thing as bad pub­li­city when it comes to selling books. Frey’s roy­al­ties cur­rently total three mil­lion US dol­lars.

The whole debacle got me think­ing about the duty of a writer to research the fac­tu­al inform­a­tion in his book. The case of Frey is not gen­er­al­is­able to all fic­tion, of course, because his book was sold on the assump­tion that it was not largely fic­tion­al. In oth­er genres, such the thrill­er, read­ers expect to be duped.

I once heard Frederick Forsyth (whose nov­els cap­tiv­ated me as a teen­ager) tell the story of pick­ing up a book at an air­port and being dis­gus­ted, mid-flight, that the book’s author had not even bothered to get his facts right. In part because of this, Forsyth went on to write The Day of the Jackal, a crack­lingly accur­ate, if some­what empty, read.

My own nov­el has reached the point where one of the char­ac­ters is mooch­ing around Buenos Aires in 1947 — as one does in time-travel-techo-hypno-uber thrillers. How do I know what Buenos Aires was like in 1947? I don’t. But there are plenty of maps, old pho­tos, aur­al his­tory, and his­tor­ic­al accounts on the web. After fif­teen minutes of scratch­ing around, this is what I came up with:

Tierra Argentina, land of sil­ver, and this port city set on its east­ern hip: Kirby loved them both. He walked briskly out of the San Telmo dis­trict, where, on his first vis­it, he had lingered hours over the mash of Spanish colo­ni­al designs, Italian flour­ishes and some­thing that approached French Classicism. The pain­fully cos­mo­pol­it­an archi­tec­ture was high­lighted by exter­i­ors painted thick, primary col­ours. The Dutch paint­er, Mondrian, adored by Kirby’s fath­er-in-law, was three years dead, but in Buenos Aires he was cel­eb­rated, inten­tion­ally or not. Kirby placed his cane between the cobbles and tipped his hat to the strut­ting tango Porteños and their ban­doneón accom­pan­ists. The tango had been refreshed by the recent ascend­ancy of Juan Perón, and Kirby’s nerves moved to its rhythm, des­pite the short­ness of his vis­it. The eyes of oth­er trav­el­lers – a hard breed – touched his, like Geoffroy’s cats mak­ing dis­tant con­tact through the grasses of the Pampas. He passed the boutiques, smiled politely at pros­ti­tutes and declined the split coconuts with twis­ted straws. He moved through pock­ets of cof­fee-stained air, the tea-like odour of chewed coca leaves, and the autum­nal smell of cigars. The life of the city over­whelmed him, and this was siesta, the quiet time.

This is the style typ­ic­al of my first drafts: twice as many adject­ives as needed, twice as many facts. No wor­ries, because these things work about half the time, and this should be a tight little para­graph when it’s been boiled down to half the length.

The point I’m lum­ber­ing Igor-like towards is that this para­graph begins a scene that starts with an import­ant event and ends with an import­ant event; both those events con­sti­tute a change in Kirby’s char­ac­ter. That’s a story: the emo­tion­al relief of char­ac­ters devel­op­ing. The city could be Santiago, Madrid, or Glasgow. The import­ant, fore­ground ques­tions are com­pletely sep­ar­ate from the back­ground: Who is Kirby? Where is he going? Is he in danger? (Yes.)

My response to Mr Forsyth — who is a fine writer — is that the streets of a story are not paved with facts whose cracks under­mine its integ­rity. The story is the emo­tion­al jour­ney. The facts take second place. Easy for me to say, of course, when he’s been a best-selling author for thirty years. Whether I can prove that with my cur­rent book remains to be seen.

Current pro­gress on ‘Flashback’:

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82,900 / 120,000
(68.0%)

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

2 thoughts on “The Truth is Out There”

  1. I noted below, after the ice cream, that I like this excerpt very much.
    Just a couple of very small things:
    ‘…over the mash of Spanish colo­ni­al designs.’ Do you mean ‘mesh’? I was a bit con­fused here.
    ’…grasses of the Pampas. He passed…’ I think ‘grasses of the Pampas’ reads very well, but sug­gest ‘passes’ should be replaced. Otherwise, I think the whole pas­sage is highly enga­ging and very finely writ­ten.

  2. Thanks for your com­ments. I agree on both points — I was prob­ably think­ing of ‘mish-mash’ in the first instance, but ‘mesh’ is an improve­ment. Wouldn’t want to have the read­er think­ing of mashed potato in the middle of the para…

    Cheers
    Ian

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