Taking the author out of the fiction: mission impossible?

There’s speculation, with many love songs, about which lovers inspired them. Art can be more or less personal, and as audience how revealing we want it to be will depend on individual make-up. Maybe all authors expose themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, in their fiction. I discovered when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s compelling novel Flight Behaviour that she is both well informed and deeply concerned about climate change. The phrase is there, in the dialogue and thoughts of the characters and the storyline of butterflies arriving in their millions in the wrong country. I’ve only just seen the parallel with refugees, also displaced by destructive human activity. Sometimes the beliefs or attitudes of the writer are less explicit. I connect with the work of Susan Fletcher at a fundamental emotional level, so it shouldn’t surprise me to find her liking my Tweets about how we relate as fellow humans to one another and the natural world. This leaves me wondering whether I could love the work of a writer whose opinions are the opposite of mine. Would I sense such a world view underpinning the narrative even if there was no intention, within the fiction, of sharing it? I’m inclined to think so. Maybe, in fact, when I’m drawn to certain authors, part of the attraction is a like-mindedness I detect, if only subconsciously. If I’m right, even the fiction we choose as readers can reinforce our political positions.

Because my husband Leslie Tate has written in Violet a novel about late-life lovers who meet like we did, people ask how much real-life is exposed in the fiction, and how close he is to the male characters in his trilogy, since he adapts his own experience. I’m asked, with my alopecia novel The Waterhouse Girl, how much of the story happened to me and I say, “Only the hair loss – but Daisy is the person I wanted, when I created her, to be.” But I didn’t know that as I wrote the book.

A didactic intention is as dangerous to a novelist as an emotional splurge, and one can morph into the other. At the same time, it’s impossible to take the novelist out of the novel, and doing so results in the kind of distanced exercise that holds no interest for readers like me because I need connection. Without the kind of authenticity that characterises intimate friendship, I don’t really care. That doesn’t mean that authors need to write about themselves, but that if they explore feelings they’ve known in order to create a character they understand in depth and detail, the character will feel real. At the same time, writers must apply a carefully measured, analytical control of style and register, voice, pace and rhythm, continuity, shape and sequence. They must know and relate to their characters as separate and other. Without such self-editing, a cathartic exploration of intense experience will be therapy but not literature.

What about genres with escapist appeal? I would have said, until recently, that I didn’t do those. Then I agreed to write Avatars of the Intelligence, the first Lucy Wilson Mystery ‘from the world of Doctor Who’. The category is science fiction in the sense that the enemy – the Great Intelligence – isn’t human, and surreal things happen as a result (making it liberating fun to write). But the fantasy is never jettisoned from real human experience because the characters root the story in relationships and emotions we recognise. It’s only recently that I’ve considered how much of me I invested in Lucy and Hobo. He has alopecia and tries to front it while refusing to allow it to define him. They represent and champion diversity in various ways. Lucy is mixed race; I’m not, but used to be nicknamed Jimi (Hendrix) because of my thick curly hair and full lips. She has a gay brother; I’m married to a cross-dressing man. We both have Muslim friends. Hobo shares her commitment to social justice and equality. I share Lucy’s only fear, but I have many more! We are both imaginative and impulsive; although I can be equally determined, Lucy is feistier. But they have their own individual identities. Unlike Lucy, I was hopeless at gymnastics! Unlike Hobo I don’t have a brain for Science and Maths. As a peace and climate activist myself, I have given them some of my values. They never use violence but resist the dark force which for me is a metaphor for all kinds of controlling powers in our world today: the social media invasion, newspapers that stir up division and hate, Cambridge Analytica manipulating our emotions, government denying us the truth, materialism fed by marketing… all of it trying to shape our thinking and influence our behaviour.

Candy Jar lured me into this project with alopecia. Inevitably I’ve brought to it my own passions and style, both of which are more important and personal to me than the hair I’ve lost. Doctor Who episodes have their own distinctive tones, and the Lucy Wilson Adventures that follow will doubtless be the same, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to create in Lucy and Hobo their core or heart. Like all my characters, they are precious to me, and like my own children they’re influenced by me but somehow very much themselves. I hope to be creatively reunited with them one day.

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