‘So am I in it?’
The response you will get at least once when you tell someone that you’re writing a novel. And most of the time they’re not really joking. In truth the answer should be, no – but a small fraction of your personality might be mixed in with twenty other people’s character traits, or maybe half a sentence that you said once or a slither of a Facebook status. I’m currently trawling Facebook for inspiration and it really is quite brilliant what people say. It reminds me of another comment people make, ‘you should write about my life, honestly you couldn’t write it.’ Well no I couldn’t and I wouldn’t want to. But I can rearrange it and steal some parts from you.
That’s what writing from personal experience is; it’s mixing it up, spicing it up, and developing events, people and places into something new. Because life really isn’t that exciting. Unless it is and you’re writing a memoir.
But what happens when authors are writing something really disturbing that goes beyond the boundaries of what society considers normal? Even I do the ‘is this your life in some way’ when reading a book. I think to myself – but how did the writer knowthat and know it so well? Yet then I remember that writing fiction is an extension of real life but not always the author’s life.
And writers read, often a ridiculous amount, they also watch, listen and learn from everything, so in the end the extensions come out of everywhere. A story could therefore be from the memory of a book read once, mixed with a character they know or combinations of people they know and how they would act in that situation, with snippets of a film or news item once watched and snatches of conversation from an unrelated resource. The final result through all this would not necessarily be something the author had experienced themselves although it might contain the emotions they have felt from other events.
Of course there are elements of death in my work and a lot of social work issues. I have experienced both and it’s a shame not to use it. I felt a bit bad about this when writing a particularly harrowing death scene but then this coincided with a time when Jimmy McGovern came to visit our MA Writing group (by the way please watch The Accused currently on the BBC – a great example of how good he is). He was talking about writing from experience and mentioned alongside retelling how his Father died said he remembered thinking, ‘This is awful…I’ll use this.’ He wasn’t making light of it but like all writers, he was making something of it.
So how much of an author’s life goes into their work?
Some famous examples are actually quote surprising. The Dementors of Harry Potter, which feed on positive emotions, were inspired by J. K. Rowling’s bout with severe depression before her success. She described the feeling as an “absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.” So this became an element of her work.
Rowling said her Mother’s death also heavily affected her writing and that she introduced much more detail about Harry’s loss in the first book, because she knew about how it felt.
On a lighter side, JK Rowling based the character of Gilderoy Lockhart on someone she knew but stated that he would be unlikely to recognise himself.
Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi must have been inspired by the thirteen months he spent in India visiting temples and zoos and the two years he spent reading religious texts and castaway stories as the protagonist explores issues of spirituality. But his inspiration for the book actually came from reading a book review of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar’s 1981 novella Max and the Cats, about a Jewish-German refugee who crossed the Atlantic Ocean while sharing his boat with a jaguar. This almost didn’t end well for Martel as Scliar was annoyed that he hadn’t been consulted about the idea and was considering whether to take any action. They spoke and the issue was resolved. A dedication to Scliar “for the spark of life” appears in the author’s note of Life of Pi.
JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You came about after she heard a radio story about a young rugby player who had been left quadriplegic and persuaded his parents to take him to Dignitas. Moyes was shocked by the story and it wouldn’t leave her mind, so she decided to write her own version.
Referring to another favourite of mine The Raw Shark Texts, is in the last section a literary retelling of the film Jaws, and must have been inspired in some part by Steven Hall watching this film. Casablanca is also referred to in the book with the line ‘Here’s lookin’ at you kid’ ending the novel and giving the reader a hint that Eric is alive and in a conceptual universe.
Or are we just terrible people?
The late Nina Bawden’s classic children’s novel Carrie’s War drew from her own evacuation during the second world war. But Bawden was a bit more harsh in her idea of how writers use life. In writing both for adults and children, she liked “making use of all my life, all memory, wasting nothing”; her books, if read in sequence, were a “coded autobiography”. She concluded in her opinion that:
“All writers are liars. They twist events to suit themselves. They make use of their own tragedies to make a better story … They are terrible people.”
Terrible people, liars or simply sharers of experiences? I prefer this idea:
“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. ” Joss Whedon
But maybe all writers should carry warnings (robbed from a retweet by writer Nicola Copeland @NCopes87):