On the strangeness of fiction

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  • Published 20091201
  • ISBN: 9781921520860
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

FELLINI’S COMMENT THAT ‘everything and nothing in my work is autobiographical’ is a neat way of describing the mysterious way fiction and life mesh. Obviously fiction has an autobiographical basis, which expresses itself not in facts or events so much as oblique flashes, subconscious truths that arise out of writing. In inventing fictional characters for instance, novelists are not necessarily telling someone’s story, so much as discovering characters drawn from myriad sources including their own fantasies. These characters sometimes emerge out of the story itself, and in turn drive it.

Their genesis is often a wonderfully complex mix of observation, immersion and discovery rather than a direct description of a living person. And even those which seem to be direct portraits need not be arrived at by the novelist’s conscious intention. For instance, it is often only towards the end of writing a novel that I recognise where some characters come from and who they are.

Vivian Gornik writes, ‘a novel provides invented characters, dialogue and speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Things can be made up, polished and coloured. Into these surrogates will be poured all the things that the writer doesn’t want to directly address -inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, antisocial desires and even lusts – but the memoir writer must deal with these slightly sordid often sad and gloomy things to achieve something that seems authentic to the reader. The novelist can do this at a distance from who they themselves are.’

You imagine yourself in other words. It’s not what happens but what, as a novelist, you make of it.


FICTIONAL CHARACTERS IN my novels can be either pure works of imagination created from thin air with no noticeable resemblance to living people, or an amalgam of different people I know. Only a tiny number are portraits of living people. The character of Faith Singer was not taken from real life so much as recast. The inspiration for her came from quite a few sources including the qualities of fearless unconventionality I admired in Dorothy Hewett and the charismatic rock singer style that I loved in women rock singers.

A critic once described me as a method actor in the way I went about writing fiction and it’s true that there is something theatrical about a writer’s immersion into fictional characters’ lives. It is a complete identification which results in a kind of super realism.

Novelists write from life, but from their own intensely observed construction of a life; a construction which has its own rules, logic and momentum. This process of immersion and total identification in a fictional work is most memorably analysed by Janet Frame in her autobiographical trilogy Angel at my Table. In Envoy from Mirror City, she wrote,

‘Putting it all down as it happens’ is not fiction, there must be the journey by oneself, the light focussed upon the material, the willingness of the author herself to live within that light, the city of reflections governed by different laws, materials, currency. Writing a novel is not merely going on a shopping expedition across the border to a real place; it is hours and years spent in the factories, the streets, the cathedrals of the imagination, learning the unique functioning of Mirror City, its skies and spaces, its own planetary system..’

This is another dimension to the use of real or created events brought about by the subconscious influences that work on fiction. In fact all the fiery material of our lives is pushed through this filter whether we like it or not and some strange material can come through.

Virginia Woolfe’s memorable dictum about material ‘suitable’ for fiction is fundamental to this: ‘Any deductions that we may draw from comparisons immeasurably far apart are futile save indeed as they flood us with the view of infinite possibilities of the art and remind us that there is no limit to the horizon and that nothing; no method, no experiment even of the wildest is forbidden, but only falsity and pretence. The ‘proper’ stuff of fiction does not exist.’

A good analogy for this process of discovery in fiction writing is that flash of recognition you have when you have just woken from a dream. It is a flash about the emotional meaning of the dream and often too, the real identity of the people in it. In the clear light of morning, the mysterious events you have been so intensely experiencing in your dream, the strange behaviour of the people you met there suddenly make sense; you recognise their relationship to you and the particular meaning they have in your life and thought.

A striking example of this in my own writing experience was the genesis of Angel, one of the main characters in Faith Singer. I had seen a young girl working the streets of King Cross once or twice – she was a very young looking, dreamy girl wearing elegant 1940’s clothes; she had an innocent, otherworldly air about her. I had a strong emotional reaction to what I sensed was a quality of thoughtful vulnerability in her. I had the ridiculous impulse to go up and talk to her, offer her to come and stay with me, somehow get her off the streets. I only glimpsed her twice or three times at the most, and did not realise how much she had really affected me.

A year later I saw her face again – on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. She had been murdered and her body dumped in a back lane in Kings Cross. By that time I was already writing Faith Singer and realised that this girl had somehow been transmogrified into Angel, Faith’s eccentric friend and surrogate daughter, a haunting presence in the novel. It was only when I saw the photograph that I recognised sadly where Angel had come from and the influences that went into her creation.

The most powerful was that glimpse of a young streetwalker, which elicited such a strong emotional reaction in me at the time. It was her childishness and then later the knowledge of her fate – pity and anger that like so many other young drug addicts she had died so needlessly on the streets of our wealthy city, that fixed her image in my memory.

There was also a sense of shame around this memory; maybe if I had followed my instinct however ill– advised it seemed at the time, her fate would have been different.

All of these powerful emotions and images went into her final portrayal, and the fictional story of a woman whose life I only guessed at.

This is not to say that the act of writing fiction is a kind of trancelike state; far from it. It is, (apart from obvious qualities like intellectual analysis, knowledge and empathy), the recognition that a respect, trust and openness to the working of the subconscious and a truthfulness in the expression of them will lead a writer to places she did not necessarily intend or expect. These are the places that are most fascinating to read about and to write.

In an interesting passage about Jackson Pollock, Kurt Vonnegut quotes him saying, ‘I must lay on the first stroke of paint. After that I insist that the canvas must do at least half the work.’ He goes on to speculate: ‘Was there ever a more cunning experiment devised to make the unconscious reveal itself? Has any psychological experiment yielded a more delightful suggestion than this one, that there is a part of the mind without ambition or information which nonetheless is expert on what’s beautiful?’


FICTION IS A of illuminating this gap between the rationality, conscious intention and externalities of our ordinary life and the hidden life we all lead, the beauty we know instinctively. It is triggered by the workings of the subconscious, the slow seep of ideas, emotions, and dreams, the underworld we all inhabit which feeds our daily lives and can be set off by music, sex, a conversation, dreams, paintings, a walk in the bush, a certain cast of light.

Pierre Ryckman wrote, ‘those who only read non fiction are in permanent danger of crashing against facts and being crushed by reality,’ a sentiment that could also apply to those who only write it. One of the joys of writing fiction is that your search for truth doesn’t have to be tied to facts.

The same processes used in fiction often work in autobiography for instance, the distant past far removed enough attains that kind of fictional glow, allows a shifting and softening of the light, the possibility of replacing certain irreducible facts by a story that has the shapeliness of fiction, the same, safe blurring of boundaries.

The truth of fiction is to do with that leap of imagination, sense of recognition – a fusion of intellect, imagination and the revelations of the subconscious – and there lies its uniqueness.

Saul Bellow in his book It All Adds Up nails it when he writes, ‘The essence of our real conditions, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it, is shown to us in glimpses, in what Proust and Tolstoy thought of as true impressions. The value of literature lies in these intermittent true impressions. A novel moves back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these true impressions come, and which move us to believe that the good we hang on to so tenaciously – in the face of evil so obstinately – is no illusion.’

Fiction is a way of expressing a private imaginary vision, or as Katherine Mansfield says ‘one tries to go deep – to speak to the secret self we all have.’ One last sentence.

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