Stealing Stories

(July 2007)
Published as Grand Theft Author, The Weekend Australian

At a party in Oxford, I met a woman who told me a story of a brief period in her youth. The story was quirky, strange, and I immediately felt the stirrings of excitement that I have learnt to recognise as creative desire. Oddly, the feelings are not dissimilar from any other kind of desire: the tremble in the belly, the dry mouth, the tumbling, terrified exultation. I held my tongue until the end of the evening, then cornered her and asked her if I could steal her story.

But why did I even bother asking? When Peter Carey published ‘Theft: A Love Story’ last year, his ex-wife, Alison Summers, complained of another theft. Carey’s novel, about an artist in the throes of a hideous divorce, cut too close to home for Summers’ comfort, insisting that one of the secondary characters, the ‘alimony whore’ of an ex-wife was a representation of her—or rather, of a version of her. In an interview in The Guardian last May, Summers insisted on her right to defend herself against literature, asking: “Should we all lie down on the highway and let the author drive back and forth on top of us because he is the author?”

And this is the tricky element, isn’t it? Because, within the created world—as in, the fictional world—the author is, indeed, God. So, yes; if you are a fictional character, and the author chooses to drive back and forth over you, then I’m afraid it’s shut up and put up. Or whatever that saying is. However, what if the character isn’t fiction, isn’t invented and isn’t terribly happy?

For British audiences, this was familiar territory. In 1999 Hanif Kureishi published his fourth novel, Intimacy, about an Oscar-nominated writer choosing to leave his publisher wife. Kureishi, an Oscar-nominated writer, savaged the female character. His publisher wife, Tracey Scoffield, whom he had just left, was publicly unimpressed. For his part, Kureishi claimed, “it’s the writer’s job to be irresponsible. That’s what we’re paid to do. In a sense writers have to say what isn’t supposed to be said.” The notion of the artist as being outside morality—an elevated being, removed from mere constraints of humanity—is as at least old as de Sade, and as short on substance as that cliché of the artist in the garret. Do writers really bear no responsibility for the stories they choose to tell?

In 1809 William Dampier rescued a young Scot, Alexander Selkirk, from an island off the coast of Chile. Selkirk—who had in fact sailed with Dampier on an earlier pirating expedition—had been voluntarily marooned on the island four years earlier. His rescue brought him a level of celebrity familiar to any peddler of survival tales, and contemporary reports have him lurching from London pub to London pub, swapping a tale of overcoming the odds for a pint and pie. It was only after the the journalist Richard Steele interviewed Selkirk for The Englishman that Daniel Defoe came across the tale and began work on his first novel, Robinson Crusoe. Did Selkirk own his own story? Defoe, in choosing to write the story as fiction, allowed himself the right to make the story an allegory, a tale of a man finding himself, and his civilisation. In Defoe’s version of Selkirk’s story, the island changes location, his solitude becomes instead a replaying of British Imperialism, with “Friday” standing in for the subjugated nations. Arguably, it is the fictionalising which gives the writer license. Summers and Scoffield, scorned wives, have both argued that it’s the lack of fictionialisation which constitutes an ethical faceslap.

Fictionalised versions of real people and real events are neither new nor necessarily reliant on close relationships. Dostoyevsky’s The Demons was inspired by a well known murder case, as was Wylkie Collins’s Woman in White. And before them all, Homer’s tales of Troy were richly fabricated versions of an historical event. This fabrication can all get quite strange: there are websites—whole online universes—devoted to something called ‘Real Person Fiction’. Here, you can find real people—by which I mean, celebrities; or at least, an imagined version of celebrites—living out alternate lives. Same names, same looks, same same, but different. So Emma Watson works in a supermarket, where she hopes the boy she likes, Jake Gyllenhall, will come to shop. Or Lyndsay Lohan dies tragically while running across the road with her friend Paris, to grab a bag of coke. In one tale, Chinese popstars Gillian Chung, and Charlene Choi “works in a British Cathouse that you know, they have to work at. Well that Cathouse is a sex house and they are the top sexy girls in that shop… they have sex with Mens.” Oh how I wish I were making this up. In some ways, though, these online writers, creating stories about schoolboy Keanu and his pal, footballer Heath Ledger, running away from the law, are playing a version of Homer’s game, and of Defoe’s—that of taking a celebrity, and making a story from them, moulding the story to suit your own message, your own purpose. The theft of fact for the purposes of fiction is interwoven with the creation of storytelling itself, and not merely in print.

When the Jane Austen biopic, Becoming Jane, came out this year, many Austen scholars were horrified at what they saw as a blatant fictionalisation of a slim moment in Austen’s life. Watching the film—a love story—the audience is caught between willing suspension of disbelief (I mean, we know Austen never glowed like that Anne Hathway, but we want to watch her looking lovely) and the discomfort of knowing how the story ends. Caught, in other words, between the fiction of the film, and the known facts. But surely a good storyteller finds the gaps in the facts of history and fills in the flourishes.

I’ve used historical characters in two of my novels: Judith Bastiaanz, a minister’s daughter on board The Batavia in 1629, is the narrator for The Accomplice. The fact that I understand, and expect my readers to understand, that my Judith is a literary creation, a construct based around the skeleton of the facts, is in part a gift of post-modernism. In my more recent novel, Captain Starlight’s Apprentice, I based a central character—a circus-performing filmstar-turned-bushranger—on Jessie Hickman, a woman who had been a rodeo rider and ended up living in a cave out the back of the Blue Mountains. I wrote about these women because I was curious about their lives, about their moment in history—especially about what the historical record left out. Somehow there was a truth there that only fiction could reach.

This appropriation is always going to happen: writers are writers partly because of an insatiable curiosity about people. For my money, writing which matters, which connects, has curiosity at its heart. Writers of this sort are the ones who, like Proust, hear stories, read snippets, and wonder what it would be like to be that person, to know that person. Alan Garner in his magnificent essays on writing, The Voice that Thunders, writes of discovering a curiosity about William Buckley, escaped convict. On a meeting with Buckley’s descendent, Garner is almost overwhelmed by a sense of being connected to Buckley the elder. As a writer, Garner understands this connection to be created by an imaginative act, in the same way that the character of Buckely is created.

When the characters are closer to home, though; when the characters are based clearly on real people, known to the writer; people who—as with Carey and Kureishi—might rather they were fictionalised more thoroughly—what then? To some extent, of course, readers—and journalists—will always assume a writers work to be autobiography. I’ve used family stories, too, in my work—plundered them, you might say. And I wouldn’t flinch. I can trace the genesis of characters, of storylines, quite clearly to family members but I’m not sure that they would recognise themselves. In the case of Captain Starlight’s Apprentice, I imagined a woman who had such severe postnatal depression that she attempted suicide and was hospitalised. My mother had severe postnatal depression, and was hospitalised. When I saw that this character was going to hold some weight in the novel, I drove up to see my mother and asked her how she would feel about me exploring this thread of her story. She shook her head: “It won’t be my story, will it? It’ll be yours.” Even so, when I gave her a copy of the book, she was puzzled : “I thought it was about me?” Well it is. And it isn’t. Because in order to find the truth of the thing, a writer sometimes has to be unloosed from the facts. And that means inventing. Otherwise, write non-fiction. What American writer John McPhee calls ‘the literature of fact’ and the literature of fiction have something important in common: they’re both literature. And words, after all, are tools of invention.

As for that Oxford party, and the woman with the quirky story I longed to appropriate: she said no. She wanted to write a screenplay about it herself. So every year I email her and ask her if she’s written it yet, and every year she emails back and says no, not yet. One of these years I might just write it anyway. But you have to promise not to tell.