Thursday, 3 January 2008

Fiction and Reality

Should art reflect life? If so, how? Discuss.

Hmmm. This all stems from yesterday’s blog about What Came Before He Shot Her, a book which is proving not just to reflect life but to describe it in all the seedy, hopeless reality which some people are unfortunate enough to endure.

My books don’t do that. Early on in my writing career I was told that my writing wasn’t edgy enough, that it didn’t have enough ‘bite’. Well, good. Because - each to their own - I don’t particularly like reading edgy, gritty fiction so why would I want to write it?

On the other hand, I don’t like candyfloss confections full of silly people doing and saying things that nobody would dream of doing or saying in real life either. Nor am I enthusiastic about books full of impossibly, ruggedly handsome men with piercing blue/startlingly green/melting brown eyes who do derring until they should drop dead with effort/exhaustion/punishment meted out to them by the bad guys but don’t. See, I do like a bit of reality in my books.

I suppose the question is, whose reality?

See, reality as I live it isn’t particularly edgy (though, I must admit, I may have been on the edge at certain points along the line and in danger of dropping off, if I’m honest) and if it has bite then it’s the bite of life relished rather than the savage teeth of fortune. I suppose, if I had to categorise what I do, my novels are about fairly ordinary people getting caught up in events which become more and more extraordinary until the ordinary people have found the extraordinary within themselves. Extraordinary in this context may be good or bad, but they are different people at the end than they were at the beginning and it’s the unfolding story which has effected the change. I’m fascinated by how living through stuff can transform people. Not walking away when the gauntlet of circumstance is thrown down changes you – it’s bound to, you have to discover reserves in yourself to deal with things that you never anticipated dealing with. They say that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Well, people do die in my books but others are made stronger.

One of my previous, unpublished, novels is about a homeless teenager who accuses a vicar of paying her for sex. Whilst I was writing it, I was doing a lot of voluntary work at a charity for homeless people so life on the streets was something I had a lot of horse's-mouth information on. I knew a lot about how people forced to sleep rough survive in a provincial town and how those who are lucky enough to have a roof over their head treat those who do not. So, the book should/could have been gritty. But the more I got under the skin of my homeless characters the more I became fascinated by them, by their backstory and what drove their reaction to finding themselves on the streets. Gritty details about everyday life without a bed, a front door, a washing machine did make their way into the book here and there - there were aspects of the characters’ lives which were authentically unpleasant - but I could not allow them to sink beneath the weight of their circumstances because, then, the book would be depressing and I have no more desire to write depressing books than I have to read them.

So - I can hear the accusation coming - you write feel-good fiction then, do you?

If feel-good means that the reader is not cast into a slough of despond by what happens to people at the end of the final page but hasbeen given some reason to hope for the characters' future, then yes, I write feel-good books. If feel-good means pages full of shiny, happy people to whom nothing really unpleasant or challenging ever happens, devoted families smiling through their scrubbed-pink lives, then no, I do not write feel-good books.

As I said yesterday, in What Came Before He Shot Her there is every reason for the characters to feel that life’s a bitch and then you die. In my books life may be a bitch but - given that my stories aren’t so gritty that their characters begin the narrative without hope for themselves or the future – in response to the bitchiness you grab it by the throat and bend it to your will with all the strength and low cunning you can muster. And then you - and the reader - watch what happens.

That’s what I do.

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