Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between


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Based on a true story

This tiger is real and would probably bite you.

A real tiger (not CGI)

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. Continue reading


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A Number of False Doors (For Litro Magazine)

A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.” – John Updike

So, the notes are back from my editor and I’m embarking on the final (this time I mean it) rewrite of my novel. It’s had its fair share of revisions in its life: characters have come and gone and the ending has changed more than once. Usually each change feels more right than it did before, but sometimes I dig up an old draft and feel I’ve lost something along the way. With all the changes that a book goes through, how can a writer be sure that they are opening the right doors?

Continue reading over on Litro


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Little grey cells

Last week I saw inside my brain.

I’d signed up for a research study on aging which involves various questionnaires, tests and scans. My replies, actions, charts and images become anonymised data; points for the researchers to plot and analyse so that what they see might perhaps become a tiny percentage of the beginning of an idea about how the brain ages and changes.

My data will become anonymous, but with this MRI scan you can still tell that this is me, even to the stubble of my beard and the shadows under my eyes. Great, even on an MRI l look tired. And I appear to be suppressing a smile – in fact just a squeeze of my cheeks caused by the plastic frame I wore to keep my head still. And then that strange wood-effect on my skin, as if by slicing me in half like that you could count the rings to tell my age. Continue reading