FACT OR FICTION -- WHO KNOWS, WHO CARES
Ask me the difference between fiction and fact, about the relationship between the two. This is one of those questions, isn't it. I know it's no use if I just say that the only thing that matters about a story is whether you can believe it, whether you can go along with it while you are reading it. I am talking here about any story, fact or fiction. If you can't go along with what you are reading, you’re often inclined to say to the writer of history is this really what happened and to the writer of fiction am I safe in believing this is all lies. People want clear categories, shelves marked FACT and shelves marked FICTION. A box of fact and a box of fiction. You can grow bewildered and even angry when you suspect writers are chucking bits from one box into another, especially if they dump some fiction into the fact pile. Facts in the fiction box are more acceptable, and you can see why they are there, and can enjoy them.
Peter Ackroyd wrote a biography of Charles Dickens. In this biography the author speculates: What if it were possible, after all, for Charles Dickens to enter one of his own novels? Peter Ackroyd then goes on to write a short piece of the fiction that could result. Throughout the biography he slips, every now and then, into this fiction, always telling the reader that he is doing so. He is writing a life of Charles Dickens, but he occasionally makes bits up in a safe, legitimate way. We don't expect to find these things in a biography, but we know where we are with it. There is no confusion; we can take it or leave it. The author is just enjoying himself playing around with the fiction created by Dickens to make some more fiction with Dickens as a character. Peter Ackroyd is not shuffling the fact and fiction cards. I read a book called Poppy by Australian writer Drusilla Modjeska. This is also a biography, but not of a famous writer; it is a biography of the author's mother. It is also a piece of fiction. A lot of it is invented by the author who has written diaries and letters for her character (her mother) so that it will never be clear to the reader where the facts end and the fiction begins. You believe the story as you read it because it is well written. But are you believing it as fact or as fiction. The publisher lists the book as both biography and fiction, and it won prizes, sometimes as fiction and sometimes as non-fiction. In the end you would probably have to classify this book as fiction, allowing that fiction can employ true facts about specific people at the same time as it invents things. Non-fiction runs into trouble when it starts inventing things.
But there's trouble too for the writer of fiction here -- if certain facts in the life of my characters are recognisable from the real life of somebody, and if I add more ‘facts’ that are indistinguishable in quality from the first set of facts, will somebody get angry and sue me. This is a dilemma for the fiction writer who must make decisions all the time about how to use facts, how much to disguise them, how much to leave out, how much to put in, how much to invent. It would be nice to be able to say you must be conscious all the time of how you are twisting, bending and manufacturing the ‘facts’, but when you are writing fiction you have to work unconsciously much of the time. Lately I've been thinking about the importance of houses in fiction and biography: I've read about vast, grand English houses; I've seen the film of Howard's End; and I've re-read Wuthering Heights. And I often think about the house I lived in when I was a child. I have not so far described this house in fiction, although I have been aware of some of its details as I wrote – a pear tree outside a window, a verandah. Once there was a gap of many years during which I did not visit that house. When I went back I experienced one of the truisms of the person who returns to the childhood house – the house had shrunk, had become a tiny dolls’ house replica of the vast domain that was alive in my mind from my infant explorations. Or had the house expanded in my mind with time and distance. The garden that had stretched for such a long, long way was the size of an ordinary suburban block. So what of fact and fiction here. If I wrote about this house and garden and the surrounding houses and streets and fields (the fields were still there, and were not figments of my imagination or distorted patches of green memory) – if I wrote about the house before I went back to be confronted by the true size, would my facts be wrong. Or if I write about it now that I have seen the truth with the dreadful eyes of age and the strange clarity of reality, will the facts come good. The facts, perhaps, but what about the heart of things, the meaning.
It depends on the point of view, on who I am and what I know when I am telling you about the house, and what I want you to know; on what I feel and what I want you to feel. You see how the facts could slip away in all this. We used to have a tall thick cypress hedge at the front of the house. Tall? I know it must have been thick because I used to hide in it and crawl through it and I kept a small wicker arm chair in it. I remember or imagine that things in the hedge never got wet. Bandicoots lived there sometimes. The front garden was on a slope and there were lawns and rose bushes and pink paths. Pink paths? They are still there. Good memory, good fact. Once I rode my bike down the slope and ended up in a rose bush. When I looked at the slope recently I found it hard to imagine how I had done this. I remember doing it. Perhaps I dreamt it? No. But the reality of today stands oddly beside the memory. The hedge is gone. On the front lawn there used to be a palm tree. Huge. So I say. I saw, long ago, a photograph of the palm tree that dominated the garden and the house. One of the little children pictured in the photograph with the tree is me, but I have no recollection of the tree in life. There is (or was) photographic evidence of its existence (and of mine) and when I was very young the tree was removed. None of this is known to me. I wonder how they got rid of that big tree. It's funny that I don't remember the time when it was cut down, or remember the remains, or remember playing with the palm leaves that were left behind. I believe we had birthday parties beneath the palm tree. There were photographs of the party tables, but you couldn't see the tree.
It occurs to me at this point that autobiography must be a very hard thing to write. I could not confidently say that when I was a child we had parties underneath a large palm tree that grew on the lawn in front of the house. I have the evidence of people who claim to remember, and I have the so-called evidence of my memory of seeing the photograph of the tree and me and assorted other children, but I know I don't remember the tree. I can, however, imagine the tree, imagine me ... and the tree ... And now I am safe; I have moved into fiction. In fiction I can have the palm tree. I can claim to have invented the tree. What happens when one of the other children from the photograph I claim to remember comes along in the guise of an adult relative and says: Gosh, the old palm tree. fancy you remembering that. They got rid of it when you were three. Never thought you'd put it in a book. Do you remember the dying pig balloons we always had at parties? You ought to put those in a book. We blew them up and let them go and they made this terrible noise like a dying pig. You were frightened of them and used to cry. I stare at this relative and feel my eyes begin to fill with tears. I think of the dying pig balloons as they fly wailing and shrieking above the lawn, above the party food, up into the leaves of the palm tree, up over the hedge and into the street. Children in coloured paper hats laugh and run and watch the paths taken by the balloons. Night falls and every balloon is tied to a little light so that the swirls and zigzags made by the movement of the balloons are marked in the air. And their paths lead backwards and forwards from fiction to fact, fact to fiction. Like paths you can draw with light if you wave a torch in the darkness. My father had a party trick with blazing Indian clubs. He moved around in the dark, swinging the clubs in intricate patterns and rhythms while somebody played the bagpipes. The bagpipes? Yes, these things I do remember. I remember a dear little round man in what I believe to be full highland regalia puffing into his wonderful bagpipes well out of reach of my father in his kilt and singlet executing a kind of slow dance in the centre of a pitch dark ballroom. This ballroom was in our local Launceston Albert Hall, a grand Victorian affair built in a corner of the City Park where there was a large dolls' house full of rabbits. These as some facts I remember. I think they are the kind of facts that are difficult to include in fiction. These facts have a look of being crudely invented. Life is a crude inventor; fiction will only be convincing if it is more artful than life. To make fiction take the reader in, you have to leave out lots and lots of remarkable things that happened in life, you have to re-assemble, you have to make. You are probably prepared to believe me when I say the story here about the bagpipes and the Indian clubs and the rabbits in the dolls' house are facts, are part of my autobiography. That’s the stuff they got up to in Tasmania in the dark before they got television and all came to their senses on the living room sofa. Fiction has to do better than fact.
Once I visited a museum in England where I saw a pair of gloves that were so small and fine they would fold up and go into a walnut shell. The gloves were made from the skin of a chicken. I have been dying to put those gloves into a piece of fiction, and perhaps one day I will. But so far I have not worked out how to do it. Do you believe me? I can scarcely believe myself. Back to the reality of our back garden. It was full of fruit trees, flowers, vegetables and raspberry canes. As well as having a fowl house it had a Wendy house, a tool shed, a garage and two more buildings one of which I turned into what I thought was a studio. All this on the suburban block? Well I don't know. Perhaps it was bigger. We had love birds and a rabbit and a dog. Somebody stole the love birds and a daphne bush. One day a galah knocked at the front door and when my mother answered the door the galah said hello and walked in. So we also had a galah. Under the back steps there was a kind of tunnel. Under one of the ‘other buildings’ there was a bomb shelter made during the second world war in case we were invaded by the Japanese. The walls of the shelter were papered with beautiful pastel maps of the world, like huge Bible maps. I had a tulip garden under a nectarine tree when I was little, and later on I had a large plot of gladioli that I used to enter in competitions. (I find that bit hard to understand, hard to believe.) Do tulips grow under nectarine trees? They did. I, the teller of this tale; I the liver of this life, feel the movement between fact and fiction as I write, see the edges as they blur. And why do I circle the house, dwelling on the hedge, the love birds, the maps on the walls of the bomb shelter. Did I live such an outdoor life? Did the sun always shine in this part of Tasmania? It did not. I spent hours and hours sitting on one of the wood boxes beside the fire. We had a black kettle on the hob. I read books and knitted and sewed and listened to women talking. My bedroom had a frieze of pink and green flowers and fruit running round at the level of a picture rail. I had a print of a picture of the statue of Peter Pan. Although all this is true, it is warped with falsehood. Did I do what I have said from the age of two to twenty? I am picking bright little memories from here and there among the dark leaves of a big tree. The bedroom curtains were floral; the bedspreads were pink. I pasted pictures of penguins onto the bedheads. Penguins? Penguins. There was pink and green floral linoleum and pink rugs. As I write, some section of my childhood, some mythic sliver of it, is a flowery, girly, misty whirl. My china doll sat on my bed. I had a chest of drawers upholstered with floral chintz. I was fond enough of it all then, but the picture of it I am painting for you (and for me) now is terrible. But true. Is it true?
Let's get out of the funny flowerbed of the remembered bedroom. Go to the side of the house, outside, on the up side of the hill. This wall faces north, but the strip of land between the house and the fence is too narrow to get the sun. There is a raised garden bed filled with bushes of veronica and a carpet of catmint. At either end of the path is a tall green lattice gate so that the whole area is enclosed. I think they must have meant to put in a fernery. The light was always different in the world between the lattice gates. The world between the gates? It was mine. The light was different, and the smell. When I came home from school in the afternoon, instead of approaching the house in the normal way I would walk through the front garden until I reached the first lattice gate. I was about twelve when I did this: I get to gate, put down case, undo bolt on gate, pick up case, go through gate, close gate. I am in. I take as long as possible to walk from one lattice gate to the other, to go the length of the house. I feel nothing, think nothing, am nothing. I cease to exist, merge with the place, drift. I am permitted to sit down on the edge of the raised flowerbed, but only to stare at the leaves and flowers, to pick them apart, sniff them and taste them. I can't read or draw. I can't do anything. I can only be. There was no act of imagination. It was more an act of negation, an exercise in disappearing. Having disappeared, I possessed the place, possessed myself, was possessed by the place. It is hard to describe because it was against words and images. Perhaps it was something like meditation or hypnosis, but I don't like to say so because those words give a false impression. There was a feeling of going in, being trapped, fulfilling the requirements of nothingness, getting out. I knew I would emerge, would take up the real world again, be a schoolgirl with hat and gloves, go into the house, open the case, get out my books and pencils. However in the time between the lattice gates I was gone, I was nowhere, I was not. The place had no name, no language. It was a piece of the world sliced off for me where nothing happened. I did not feel safe there; it was not a refuge. It was a trap, a zone to be negotiated, navigated, where rules must be obeyed. Go slow, think nothing, head for the other gate. Slowly. Don't turn round. I now realise I was creating a split in my real world, trying to find a way out of reality, a way that was not dreams or imaginings. I think this desire for getting into nothingness between the lattice gates is linked with my desire to write fiction. I am not even sure how it is linked, but I see the person who went into nowhere every day after school as closely related to me now when I am writing stories.
When you write fiction you go somewhere, but it’s really nowhere. I have given you my version of what I used to do between the gates, and it's a kind of fact. Perhaps you could find a neighbour who saw me doing it, saw me dawdling along the side of the house. Hiding. Moping. Dreaming. Chewing catmint. A deficient diet? Getting out of piano practice, out of housework, out of homework. What I tell you is the inside fact of what I was doing. I try to explain how I felt, how I was. The neighbour tells you what she saw me doing, and how she interprets it. A scientist with a telescope watching from his tower on the mountain will tell you the girl is going to be a botanist. She puts plants in her pocket and takes them into the house to sketch them. It seems there are degrees of fact here, and degrees of fiction. My own interpretation of what I was doing might be closer to fiction than to fact. Is there a scale with pure fact at one end and pure fiction at the other. The pure facts would be the lattice, the plants, the girl, the uniform, the case, the time of day. That’s the solid beginning-point of fact. Then you move through points of view, interpretations, inventions, fantasies until you get pure fiction. Somewhere down at the school hat end you would get autobiography, and somewhere just past the middle of the scale you would get a sort of ordinary fiction. At the far end you get pure fiction and fantasy. As I write fiction I see and feel the movement along this scale from fact to fiction. In fiction it doesn't matter how far you go along the scale. When writing fact it is important to stay as close to the fact end as you can. That’s why I like writing fiction -- there are no boundaries. I enjoy reading facts, but when I write, I mostly write fiction.
In my fiction I get things from the fact end of my scale. Elements of reality and memory inspire me. I am interested in the play between fact and fiction, interested in the moment when the metamorphosis takes place, when the grub of fact becomes the butterfly of fiction. I wrote a story called ‘The Woodpecker Toy Fact’. It is fiction. It is also a reflection on the way stories get told, fiction gets written. It is in the first person, and the narrator recalls things that readers can see might be the recollections of the writer. Readers ask me how much of it is true. It is not possible for me to give a satisfactory answer to this question, not possible to tease out the memory from the imagining, the fact from the fiction, to isolate the spot on the fact to fiction scale where a transformation begins.
Some years ago I drove past a sign that said ‘Woodpecker Toy Factory’. Perhaps all the letters were intact; perhaps some were missing; perhaps the last syllable was gone, leaving 'fact' for 'factory'. I might have dreamt or imagined I drove past the sign. In any case, I got the words 'Woodpecker Toy Factory' from reality or from imagination, and I played with the words until they (minus the last syllable) became the title of a story and were placed and justified and used in the story. They also gave rise to a place Woodpecker Point where this and another story were set. My book called The Woodpecker Toy Fact appeared on the computer at Dymock’s as The Woodpecker Toy Factory. I like that. The first words of the story are 'My mother', words that sound like the words of an honest narrator. Reader prepares to believe narrator's story. It goes on 'My mother was a magger' explaining that magger means great talker and gossip, like a magpie. At this point the narrator's mother and the writer's mother are identical or very similar. I imagine a photograph of a woman (Mother) and a series of reproductions of the photograph, each print with a more pronounced double image until the second last print shows to separate images of the same woman, and the final print shows only one image, that being the one that has moved off from the first one. The first Mother of Fact has gone, and the new Mother of Fiction has appeared. This is too simple because the Mother of Fiction has gathered habits and characteristics from other people along the way and she is not identical to the Mother of Fact. To show her transformation you would have to keep adding little changes as the second image slid into being.
Now as I write it is night and there is a wild storm outside. I can hear the wind and the rain. In front of me on the table is a blue and white pot with three white tulips blooming in it. The lowest leaves are broad and slightly flounced; the higher leaves are spears of soft green. Where the silky white cups of the tulips join the smooth pale green of the stems there is no grading of colour, just a sharp change from green to white. These are the facts. The flowers are strangely still. The strong light from a lamp shines on them, and huge on the white wall behind them is thrown a tulip-shadow. This shadow is the fiction. I search for ways to describe the switch from fact to fiction. The story of 'The Woodpecker Toy Fact' begins with the fact of Mother brought from the life of the writer, and there are other facts that the writer could identify as the story goes on. These facts are re-arranged to allow for the creation of fiction. It doesn't matter whether the characteristics of the Mother of Fiction are those of the writer's mother, or of any other woman the writer heard or knew about. The only thing that matters to the reader and the writer and the story is the Mother of Fiction should be presented in such a way that she has a life in the writing. From the first fact ‘My mother was a magger’ the story moves on, twisting in and out of fact and fiction, shifting all the time along the scale away from pure fact until at the end of the story it reaches pure fiction when the narrator's dead grandmother appears to the narrator in the form of a small blue butterfly.