Based on a true story

I was interested in the most recent revelations (perhaps too strong a word) about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and this piece by Robert McCrum as I’d been thinking a bit recently about the importance of being able to identify what’s ‘true’ in stories and, as McCrum puts it, our “profound, unconscious need to know what genre we’re in.”

I’ve written before about how weird the process of making things up is – that as a novelist it’s not enough to lie convincingly, but rather you have to create interesting semi-patterned fabrications like the delusions of a conspiracy theorist. And if you get it right, the reader will join you in the conspiracy. As Dom Grelsch says to Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas: “Anything is true if enough people believe it is.”

If any book tests the boundaries of genre it’s Cloud Atlas, but even so we have developed tacit cultural agreements about what is and isn’t considered plausible within our stories. At one extreme, in Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, Daniel Everett writes about the Pirahã people who never tell stories about subjects beyond their direct knowledge, and always demand evidence based on personal experience. (Everett, a former missionary, has all sorts of trouble explaining Jesus to them.) But at the same time, forest spirits can literally take the form of people and animals, and be present even if unseen.

A dinosaur to see you, Mr Holmes

There are many such examples about how different cultures approach story and truth. Within western literature (for want of a better term), conventions of genre help us to decide what is taken as believable. If a triceratops had turned up at 221B Baker Street, or if Mr Polly had been whisked off in a Time Machine, readers might have been surprised. But both Conan Doyle and HG Wells were perfectly capable of having writing careers in which the rational and fantastical shared a bookshelf – as Iain Banks does today, helpfully dividing his collection with the letter M.

For the originators of science fiction, the intrusion of the fantastical into the everyday was part of its appeal. War of the Worlds was so terrifying and effective because this strange alien presence was demolishing suburban normality. And as soon as a genre is established, authors start to break down conventions until the genres themselves mix and merge. After some years in the snobbery-wilderness, sci-fi creeps more and more into literary fiction (whatever that means these days). Never Let Me Go, Oryx and Crake, The Road, the aforementioned Cloud Atlas all rely in their own different ways on sci-fi staples. Although as an adult I’m yet to write any sci-fi, the books that excited me growing up were the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley, the distant scientific possibilities of Arthur C Clarke, the dark speculative semi-futures of J.G. Ballard. These worlds seemed, if not real, then at least having every possibility of becoming real. Conversely, I’m afraid that when it comes to fantasy I’m with thenot another fucking elf brigade. Being more considered, my failure to engage with this genre is down to the difficulty I have in accepting that this sort of world could exist at all. I am, in short, not a believer in magic. In magic realism I remain an agnostic. It depends rather more on the magician.

Uninspired by real events

I saw Life of Pi at the cinema the other day, having read the novel around the time it came out. Both are wonderful, captivating things, and both share the same flawed philosophy. If we accept Pi’s tale it should not make us believe in God: rather it casts religion as a comforting lie. It wants us to accept that there probably isn’t a God, but we should pretend there is one because it’s a nicer story. Whilst the story with the tiger might be the one we want to hear, for me at least God isn’t the better story. The world revealed by sceptical enquiry is far more extraordinary and surprising than the one we glimpse through the fingers of faith. CGI tigers though, I could get behind. If churches had more CGI tigers I might consider going.

Beyond the theology, there is another trick to Life of Pi: its structure is a tale that we are invited to believe as a true story told to the author. In this case it is a conceit, but a lot of films start with the silent lines ‘Based on a true story,’ or more obliquely ‘Inspired by a true story.’ To take the recent throwaway example of Gangster Squad, this ‘inspiration’ can signify a relationship with the truth as loose as Mickey Cohen’s tax returns. So, why make the claim in the first place? Is the assumption that we will become more invested in the story because we think that the events might actually have occurred? I often feel the opposite. ‘True stories’ tend to make me read up on the facts afterwards, leaving me feeling swindled by shortcuts and distortions made. And this can be important for history too, as the fictional version is the one that becomes more widely known and accepted.

Playing with ambiguity about truth and the boundaries of story is often more engaging. If done well, I’m partial to a spot of postmodern fiction that has fun breaking the fourth wall (or should that be the second page?)  And found footage horror films are two-a-bad-penny these days, but when The Blair Witch Project came out, the entertaining notion that this might be real footage was part of the draw, even if everyone knew deep down that it was all a fiction.

I say ‘everyone’, but you can’t be sure: David Icke addresses packed stadia of people with his loopy lizard lore; fraudulent health remedies confuse and delude millions. Why? Perhaps in part because the fantasies tell ‘better’ stories – more coherent narratives that our pattern-seeking brains are good at latching onto. Some of these stories are hopeful stories: “I can cure your cancer using special energy”. Some of them are fearful stories that nonetheless seem to give people an odd kind of purpose: “moon landings were faked by a cynical government, but you can be among those who know the real truth”. And even without pointing the finger at fringe beliefs, we all attach meaningful narratives to events that are random and arbitrary.

That would never happen

Sometimes once you have accepted the framing narrative, everything then becomes possible. Conspiracy theories are by their very nature unfalsifiable – all challenges to them can be seen as evidence for their pervasiveness. But in fiction, a fantastical framing narrative does not give you carte blanche to do anything. We can be comfortable with an essentially ludicrous story, but still shout in incredulity at individual absurdities or spot factual errors that throw us out of the fiction.

As a writer, even tiny details start to matter a lot as you try to waterproof your book against potential logic-leaks. The internet makes this easier to a degree: there is so much detail available under your fingers. Someone pointed out to me that I have my protagonist getting off at the wrong Tube-stop for a particular scene to make sense geographically. With Google maps and streetview this is not only easily fixed, you even have instant pictures of what the character would see along the way. This is a double-edged sword of course, because it’s there for the reader to check up on too.

Something that bothers me on occasion is the weather. My novel Dead Note (watch this space) is set during specific periods in the last decade or so, and the weather plays an important thematic part, but the fact is that the weather on the dates concerned just wasn’t how I have written it. Does this matter? Why do I have no difficulty making up fictional people, fictional companies, fictional news events, but have a small nagging worry about whether it was snowing or not in London on a particular Thursday?

Now I am writing a historical novel, and it is sobering how much harder the details are to get right when they are beyond your own memory. David Mitchell provides an object lesson in this. His worlds can be one step from reality but his grasp of detail is impressive. He reports that, in writing the historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, checking a fact about how someone might have shaved in 18th Century Japan would mean that “Sometimes you can’t finish a sentence without spending half a morning going away and finding it out.” But as readers we appreciate the effort. We don’t mind being lied to, but we do want our lies to be treated with care and attention.

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