June 1, 2012

Writing about real people

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , at 8:16 am by Susan

A few weeks ago, novelist Clare Morgan and I gave a joint talk at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. The organisers of the Festival presented us with a goodie bag, to say thank you for our contribution. I still have the bag. Not only is it a decent size and nicely robust, it is also rather beautiful, with shiny laminated sides and thick rope handles that are long enough to loop over your shoulder. The bag is white, and there’s a quotation printed on each side, taken from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

This makes me think of writing about real people, and in particular those points of tension that occur between the ‘truth’ of what is known and the requirements of fiction-making.

One of the strange paradoxes of writing Vanessa and Virginia was that there were places where the ‘truth’ felt too strange for fiction. For example, the sisters’ beloved half sibling Stella died in 1897, only a year and a half after their mother’s tragic death. If I had been writing a factual account, I could have treated the devastating effect of their mother’s death and then followed it with this second tragedy. But for fiction, this felt like overload. It felt strained, and paradoxically untrue.

The solution in Vanessa and Virginia was to begin the novel with Vanessa (my narrator) thinking back over her relationship with Virginia. This device meant I could use Vanessa’s memories to structure the narrative and so was not obliged to present events chronologically.

Most novelists writing about real people seem to devise their own set of rules about how far to stray from the ‘truth’. In my own case, I promised myself that while I would invent in all the gaps, I would not contradict any definitely established fact. I found out as much as I could about the real-life Vanessa and Virginia. This helped me reach that necessary point of intimacy for fiction-making where I was able to second-guess how they might feel, as well as what they might think, say, or do. It seems to me that to write a novel you have to give yourself permission to climb into your characters’ skin and walk around it it.

Was this what motivated actress Nicole Kidman when she put on that infamous nose to play Virginia Woolf in the film of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours?