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.
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’:
82,900 / 120,000