Truth or fiction? where do you stand?

November 4th, 2010

Where do you stand on the thin line between truth and fiction? Andrew O’Hagan came to Canterbury recently to talk about The Life and Opinions of Maf The Dog and His Owner Marilyn Monroe  (LOMD&HOMM for not-very short). The dog was real. Marilyn Monroe was real. Quite a few people in the novel were real. But it’s still a novel. Maybe that’s the secret of its success. ‘I find that, particularly in this book, the more I base a novel on the truth, the deeper it gets. It resonates with more people.’

Contrast that with Sebastian Faulks’ irritation when people asking him about A Week In December insist on viewing the book as a thinly disguised account of real people. His frustration in having to explain that novelists invent fiction is something any of us can identify with. Every time I published a novel, my mother always asked something like: ‘Who was Anthea, darling?’

    ‘She was invented, she isn’t anybody!’ I would shriek, and my mother would go off nodding wisely, muttering ‘I think I know who it is,’ under her breath.

 The truth-fiction line seems to be getting increasingly wavy. When Andrew O’Hagan discovered that Maf the dog had originally been bought from Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell at Charleston, and that he had come from Scotland before that, he was over-joyed. Maf’s voice and Andrew’s own could chime, both being Scottish. And this meant that LOMDetc would be firmly in the tradition of the picaresque novel – the journey of life with its ups and downs, as typified by Don Quixote and many other works of fiction since. Of course, with Maf being a dog, no-one can accuse Andrew of writing anything other than a novel, whereas it all gets even more peculiar with Richard by Ben Myers, who’s written a novel about the final days of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. (There must be people around who lived through those days – how are they going to feel reading it?).

        I think Andrew and Sebastian are both right. The truth resonates, but fiction is invented. Andrew did a huge amount of research to get the actual detail right, going to the sale of Marilyn Monroe’s effects and being astounded at the hundreds of thousands of dollars people were prepared to pay for her old shoes or jeans. ‘I think high and low culture have fused: whereas art in the past would have meant an expensive painting, people are just as prepared now to frame Marilyn Monroe’s jeans and hang them over the fireplace. And to spend as much as they would have done on acquiring a major name in art.’

   Research is a wonderful anchor for fiction (and I know Sebastian does a great deal). Every time I got bogged down in Lovers & Liars, I went to interview a counsellor who specialises in abuse, called up a friend who came from an abusive family or read a book on psychological and verbal abuse. I got in touch with the truth. I never recreated these true stories in the novel, but I used them as a basis to build on, and this is what resonates with people. ‘I’m looking at my sister’s divorce differently after reading it,’ said one friend. ‘Her ex-husband was two hours late picking the children up the other day, so she missed a train she’d booked. I’d always thought he was just hopeless before, but I now realise it’s all part of his way of controlling her.’

   Andrew O’Hagan used a large number of real people in LOMDetc –not just Marilyn Monroe, but art dealers, actors and so on, and, obviously many of the events in the novel actually happened, all mixed with fictional characters and plotlines, and the imagined voice of Maf. Sebastian has invented all his characters and plots in A Week In December but where necessary, using research to establish what could and did happen. I think I’m up the Sebastian end as a writer – I’d hesitate to use real people in a novel, like Ben Myers has done, but I think his and Andrew O’Hagan’s approach is fascinating. Where do you stand on this? I’d love to hear.

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