Tuesday, May 1, 2012

That fact v fiction question again

Over the years I have been writing, I have been asked many times if the stories my novels contain are ‘true’. In August last year, I wrote an ICFW blog on this topic and hoped my days of hearing this question and writing about it were over. But alas, it seems they’re not. Recently, I was challenged quite strongly about it all in a way that left me almost lost for words.

I had been invited to speak to around a dozen women from a church group gathered in someone’s home. I duly launched into my talk and then invited questions, either on the topic covered or on writing in general.

‘Oh, I was under the impression your first two novels were a true story,’ one older lady burst out immediately. ‘I’m so disappointed! I wouldn’t have cried so much all through reading them if I’d known they were made up!’

For a moment I was flabbergasted. How does one respond to such comments? How would you have responded?

Eventually I managed to say a few things in what I hope was a gracious manner. I pointed out that many of the key facts in these books are indeed ‘true’ and happened exactly as I had recounted them—especially the saddest ones. Yet while I had modelled the two main characters on ‘real’ people, I had certainly created others from my imagination and from a variety of traits I had seen in people over the years. And of course I had invented the conversations that took place between them all and so much else too. After all, my books are novels! And it does state on the back cover of each of my first two novels that they were merely ‘inspired by’ a real life story.

I also made the point that if an author purported to be writing non-fiction when it was indeed fiction, I would be concerned about that! In that instance you have lied to your public—which is not on, especially for Christians. But as for including fact in fiction—well, is there a problem with that?

Later in the evening, another lady continued the discussion privately with me.

‘But surely there would have to be a limit to the truth authors are allowed to have in their novels, wouldn’t there?’ she asked in a puzzled tone. ‘Is there some rule about that—perhaps that you can have say fifty percent ‘truth’ and the rest made up?’

Now how would you answer that one?

Well, I must admit I floundered again. In reality, how could anyone ever put a ‘percentage’ on the ‘truth’ that could be included? Aside from material that an author knows is ‘true’, so much of what he or she might write comes from some experience or encounter in real life, intermingled with imagination.

It was all too much for me. With a weak smile, I told her I would think about it a little more.

At that point, the lady who had reacted strongly in our question time came to look at my book table. We chatted amicably—and then she proceeded to buy two more of my novels! I hid a smile and managed to refrain from commenting. But I hope and pray she can allow herself to become lost in them as she reads, without wondering what is ‘true’ and what isn’t. And I hope and pray she is thoroughly blessed in the process.

16 comments:

  1. Whew! What a challenging time you had! It sounds like these women don't understand fiction. All the best novels are true in the deepest sense--demonstrating philosophical or theological truths in a story through characters with whom readers identify. My first juvenile fiction asks if God can be trusted when bad things happen. I wrestle with that question in a story about a family kidnapped by rebels during the Mozambican civil war. All the awful things in there happened to someone during those years. Sometimes I even used the actual words of a friend recounting his experiences. But they didn't all happen to one family. And as you say, I added conversations and actions to make the reader feel like they are there along side the story family. That's what makes it fiction. But all the tears a reader might shed for African children kidnapped and forced to commit atrocities far beyond their years are not wasted, because the same things and worse are happening every day in other countries still at war.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you hit the nail on the head, Leanne, when you comment that these women didn't seem to understand fiction. I guess it was my 'lot' that night to try to help them along that path a little. Not sure if I succeeded, but I tried. Thanks for all your comments in this regard--it's good to know I'm not going crazy and others understand!

      Delete
  2. I'm wondering how you stopped yourself from laughing outright. But I guess taking the time to explain was a worthier path. Don't forget you were actually paid a compliment, Jo-Anne. They really believed your fiction to be true. And realism is something we all strive for.
    Ah yes, we do meet some funny folks along the way...more grist for the mill!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think they could see I looked a bit shocked! It was more that such things were said in public in the group though with such strength of feeling that floored me a little at first! But I reckon God was watching over me and gave me the words to say.

      Delete
  3. Jo-Anne, thanks for sharing your "true" story :) I haven't gotten that question, but I agree with Rita, it is a compliment to your writing to be so true to life :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, Eva--yes, every word of it was indeed 'true'! And thanks to you and Rita for pointing out the comments were a compliment in one way too. On another tangent, something I wondered about later was whether these women would 'like' the idea that maybe there was no 'real' lost (prodigal) son or 'real' good Samaritan, for example. Jesus may have seen exactly those things happen or parts of them or invented them entirely to teach what was needed,but that doesn't alter their impact or importance. Not for me anyway! God bless.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I wonder if the woman who asked the question was ministered to on a deeper level because of your story and was concerned she had believed a lie. The Scripture encourages to seek the truth. God can use fiction in a very powerful way and there are many skeptics regarding its redemptive quality. The fact she bought two more of your books tells me God must have spoken to her confusion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for that very thoughtful, insightful comment, which has now set me thinking further! I do trust you are right and I hope and pray God truly does minister to her with my two other books she bought.

      Delete
  6. Sometimes we are shocked at the absurdity of people's words which seem to speak louder than their actions. I worked in a Christian bookstore in the late 80s and a customer, probably in her forties, had come in looking for a bible for her mother.A typical request until she finished her sentence; "I want a bible for my mother, .... but it cannot have any violence in it!"
    Now, that was a mouth opener.

    Judith Coopy (USA), coopyju@hotmail.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bless her heart - that's all I can say!

      Delete
  7. That's never happened to me. I think my jaw would drop and then I'd have a hard time not laughing out loud. I think you handled it marvellously!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Valerie. This lady seemed so genuinely distressed I don't think I would have had the heart to laugh, but I know what you mean!

      Delete
  8. It shows the bizarre attitude some people have to fiction and story. But something must have got through to the questioning lady since she bought two more of your novels.That's a real plus.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes,it did make me feel so much better about the evening when I made those two sales to this lady! Re the bizarre attitudes to fiction, I agree totally, Dale. One of my earliest experiences of this was at a large Christian meeting where a lady discovered I was a writer. When I told her what I wrote, she said in a shocked voice: 'Did you say FICTION? You mean ...NOVELS???' (!!!) On that occasion, I almost DID laugh out loud!

      Delete
  9. Jo-Anne, I think you did well to handle this situation with grace. And it's definitely a compliment that they were so emotionally affected by your stories and bought more of your books :) It also indicates a lack of knowledge regarding the existence of Christian fiction in Australia. I've lost count of the number of strange looks I've received from Aussie Christians when I mention I write Christian fiction :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks, Narelle. And yes, I guess this event does highlight the wider issue you mention re lack of knowledge of the existence of Aussie Christian fiction here. That's why I was so delighted to see just last week a great display of Aussie novels right near the main door of a big Christian bookstore here in Sydney-and I told the manager so too!

    ReplyDelete