In David Sedaris’s ‘Repeat After Me’, the narrator’s sister tells a funny story against herself, then bursts into tears. The narrator reaches for his writer’s notebook, but his sister grabs his hand, begging him never to repeat the story. Sedaris writes: ‘In the movie version of our lives, I would have turned to offer her comfort, remind her, convincing her that the action she’d described had been kind and just. Because it was. She’s incapable of acting otherwise.’ But:
In the real version of our lives, my immediate goal was simply to change her mind. ‘Oh come on,’ I said. ‘The story’s really funny, and, I mean, it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it.’ Your life, your privacy, your occasional sorrow—it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it. Is this the brother I always was, or the brother I have become?1
I love this piece as an exploration of the writer’s dilemma in using other people’s lives as material. As I read it, I perceive what my writer’s heart wants to believe: that in taking and retelling his sister’s anecdote, Sedaris knows he will not only render it as the comic gem it first appears, but that in his hands her experience might also be transformed into something new, something deeper and richer than she herself perhaps can understand. But at the same time, he knows this writerly desire is a treachery he will repeat again and again.
My experience in writing fiction is increasingly pushing me to face the idea that causing pain to others is a novelist’s occupational hazard. Three and a half books into my career, I find myself drawing material—sometimes glimpses, sometimes whole swathes—from closer to home; from my life and the lives of people I love.
I think my fiction is getting better. But is there a cost? What are the ethics of this? Is it wrong to ‘use’ other people for my art? Or does the very question simply reveal my amateur status? Is my anxiety about the ethics of appropriating people’s lives mere squeamishness, evidence of an immature writer’s self-indulgence?
In writing my novel The Children, I used several instances from the lives of people I know. Most are small (or at least discrete) incidents that I used quite overtly, but others—an aspect of character, for example, or a certain behaviour, took shape in a far more complex fashion. I asked for, and the people concerned granted, permission to use the clearly identifiable incidents. But what if the ‘owners’ of the stories in question had said no? What would I have done then? And what of the hazier, less identifiable things I’ve taken? Are these more acceptable simply because the people concerned might not twig?
When I was first writing fiction, I admit I saw this kind of ‘appropriation’ as a morally questionable form of creative laziness. Why couldn’t writers make everything up? That’s what fiction was, wasn’t it—invention? I had cast-iron rules about disguise, about lines I would and wouldn’t cross. That position now seems to me laughably naive, for as my fiction matures and (I hope) improves, the lines between invention and reality are increasingly blurred.
This essay is a brief wade through the cold and murky swamp of a novelist’s ethics.
Part I: The Letter In The Hedge
In my novel The Children, the use of other people’s lives takes several different forms. In the opening pages, the elderly father of my fictional family, Geoff Connolly, falls off the roof of his house and is horrifically injured. He survives on a ventilator for a week before dying. This is a tragedy that also befell some overseas relatives of mine: my ageing uncle fell from a ladder, and later died in hospital. When this happened I had already begun work on my novel—I had had the idea of a family of grown-up siblings recalled to the home town of their childhood in response to some serious event, but the event itself had not yet become clear. My first thought was that it could be a parent dying from cancer (this had killed both my own parents), but I soon decided against this. Cancer is a slow killer; it could not provide the dramatic tension, the urgency I wanted for this novel, and would not demand a family’s immediate return.
When we received the shocking news of my uncle’s accident I was deeply upset, particularly on behalf of my cousins and aunt to whom I am close. But, I still find it difficult to admit, not long after the accident a part of my writer’s brain thought: aha. I was immediately ashamed of my impulse to use this event, however, and put it from my mind. I felt an atrocious guilt that the idea had even occurred to me. Worried about intensifying the already awful pain of my aunt and cousins, I cast about for some other catalyst—one that did not involve anyone I knew.
Over the following months, I tried to substitute other events—accidental electrocution, for example; a car accident; a fall down some stairs. But it became clear to me that nothing else would do. The fall itself had symbolism and drama and truth, and the mundane job of replacing a broken roof tile (I imagined this) offered a pathos-filled, domestic banality that none of these other deaths held. I decided, without telling anyone, to forget about inventing other causes of death and, for the moment at least, use the roof fall. I decided to let at least two years pass, and then ask my cousins and aunt how they would feel about my using the incident, emphasising that my fallen character would bear no resemblance to my uncle; that the events of my book would, in effect, have nothing to do with them.
And this is what I did. But before I wrote to my cousins, I worried a great deal. I expected them to be offended by the approach: they might not believe I wasn’t writing a portrait of their family, and would be hurt by my desire to steal their most painful experience, exploiting our relationship for my own purposes. Or they might be wounded by the ghoulish selectivity of my desire—by the fact that the only aspect of their complex, loving, intelligent father that interested me was the violence of his death.
In the end their responses were, to my mind, shockingly blithe. Of course you can use it, one of my cousins wrote. Stunned, I urged her to discuss the issue further with her mother and siblings. She appreciated my sensitivity, but was sure they would be untroubled. She soon reported that her mother had waved her hand and said, in effect, who cared what I did with it?
There are three other clear instances in The Children where I’ve used material from the lives of others—and a great many less clear ones. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my main character began to germinate in my mind after I had dinner one evening with an old friend who had become a foreign correspondent, and was visiting Australia between long assignments in Kabul and Baghdad. My friend—a bookish, sensitive young woman—seemed that evening to have changed, to have become tougher, defensive, a little callous. I found it difficult to understand how she now so willingly inhabited a life steeped in violence and the suffering of others. Only much later did I realise she had worn a kind of wisecracking carapace to protect herself from the deeper implications of her working life, and from the judgement of people like me.
At that time I was finishing my second novel, The Submerged Cathedral, and had no idea what was next in store. But over that year, whenever I thought of my friend I was troubled by the unfathomable distance between our lives. I began work on my new novel about siblings, about country towns, but thoughts of my friend and her job kept nudging at me, and I came slowly to the cold realisation that I wanted to write about a journalist home from a war zone, trying to assimilate the horror of her experiences into the bland, oblivious, country-town life of her family.
The idea concerned me for similar, but more self-serving, reasons than my anxieties about my uncle’s accident. I was scared of the topic, and I was scared of my friend’s response when she discovered what I was doing. What did I know of war? How could my domestic narrative do anything but trivialise her experience? Who did I think I was? Once again, as soon as I acknowledged to myself my desire to explore this material I turned away from it. Instead, I decided to take some bones of the idea—an Australian woman whose life veers into some kind of danger overseas—and I tried some tacks I’m embarrassed now to recall, conceits born of desperation and avoidance and fear. The work was dead on the page.
Eventually, stopped by the brick wall of my own boredom and shame at the lifelessness of the writing, I made another private decision. To hell with sensitivities—I would just write my character, and deal with any fallout later. This time I’d be ruthless. I’d do it without asking permission. If my friend objected, I’d take the consequences. This was what Real Writers did, wasn’t it? I had read many of the writerly quotes on this matter, from Faulkner to Didion (‘Writers are always selling somebody out,’ wrote the latter), from Greene to Mailer to Kureishi. Faulkner’s most famous line still gives me a shivery thrill: ‘If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.’
So I girded my loins: it was time for me to grow up, embrace Greene’s ‘virtue of disloyalty’, cultivate the splinter of ice in my heart. If this was the way real writers worked, it was time for me to get real. I researched, immersing myself in memoirs of war reporters and photographers, speaking to people who might help me, reading psychiatric studies of the effects of war on journalists. And I began to create my character, Mandy. Possibilities began to stir. But still, something in the writing wasn’t working. The whole time, I felt my friend’s critical eye on my work, and heard her voice: who do you think you are? I was soon almost completely paralysed by my fear of her reaction.
I took action. I wrote to her, albeit in a disingenuously casual manner, letting her know I’d begun writing a war-journalist character, adding that she needn’t worry, it was only her job, not her actual experience, I wanted. This email brought no response. As the weeks went by I became even more anxious, and more paralysed. I came clean. I wrote in complete honesty: I was sorry if I had upset her; I wanted to create a reporter character but was terrified of not being able to do it; I sincerely did not wish to write about her or her private life, but if she had any objection to me going near this territory I would stop, and turn elsewhere.
After writing this, I immediately felt better. One way or the other, I could put an end to this miserable paralysis, if necessary by dumping the project completely. This time a response came quickly. It was warm, funny, and generous. Was I mad, she asked? An email mix-up had sent her previous response astray. She was ‘chuffed’ at my interest, was confident I could do justice to the material, and would do anything she could to help me.
An enormous weight lifted from me. And suddenly, my book took off. With my friend’s blessing, the writing process was set free. Even if it failed, or had to be abandoned, I could at least try wholeheartedly now, free of the anxiety that had hitherto crippled the writing.
Two other real-life incidents made their way into The Children, though neither had the ethical magnitude or the creative necessity of the two examples above. One was a story about my mother-in-law that I had known for a long time: as a young woman, she had ambitions to be an air hostess, and wrote to Ansett asking for a job. There was no reply, and her life continued into marriage and children. But many years later, her father revealed that once, while clipping the hedge beside the letterbox, he had found an envelope pushed deep into its brambles. Her mother, not wanting her to leave home, had opened the airline’s letter of a job offer, and instantly thrust it into the hedge, where it remained for years and years.
This anecdote always held enormous power for me. Once again, it was ordinary, domestic, but with a breathtaking jolt: the split-second brutality of a mother’s action. That she did not take the letter away and read it, or hide it somewhere else—burn it, even—spoke of a fierce, primal instinct. Within seconds, in one savage physical motion, she irrevocably changed the course of her daughter’s life.
As I wrote The Children I wondered if I might give this story to the character of my fictional family’s mother, Margaret. I had my husband raise the question with his mother first, in my absence, and then when she seemed unfazed, I emailed her, putting to her the usual caveats: it was only the incident I was after—the character was nothing like her, nothing else about her life would be contained in my story. She agreed immediately and cheerfully.
The last clearly identifiable incident I used in my novel was one from my own childhood, and I did not seek permission for it at all; I felt it was mine to use as I wished. I relate it here not because it shows any serious harm has been done, but because it might point to some of the deeper issues of story ownership, confusion about the process of transformation, and the potential for misunderstanding and hurt to arise in the metamorphosis of life into fiction.
During a commonplace childhood quarrel in our bedroom, my sister threw a glass tankard at me, and while there was no danger of it breaking, I received an impressive black eye. I was triumphant. Now, with every person’s sympathetic enquiry about my eye, I could punish my sister.
But this didn’t quite go to plan. I soon felt fiercely sorry for her and didn’t want people to think badly of her (after all, I knew my own part in the fight). So I began telling people I’d fallen over and hit my face on something. This culminated in telling my lie to a neighbour in the presence of my parents and sister. My mother, while sympathetic to my motives, told the woman the truth, and I felt sorrier for my sister than ever.
As I wrote my novel, this incident popped into my head as a useful example of the shifting tides of love and hostility between siblings. I wrote the scene as I recalled it, but changed one detail: my sister had thrown the glass from the bed adjoining mine, but in the novel I had my character Mandy throw it at her sister from the top bunk, to give it some extra force.
After my book was published, my sister told me that she was enjoying it but then added, in a hurt-sounding voice: ‘I didn’t throw that glass from the top bunk, you know.’ I was amused. ‘I know! I made that bit up. It’s fiction. I had to make it more dramatic.’ I added that in the book the story was mostly told against Cathy, the sister who’d been hit—her malicious glee at lording it over Mandy—but also that ultimately it was a portrayal of how much she loved her sister and wanted to protect her.
My sister responded amiably, but then added, puzzled: ‘I thought maybe you were upset about it still. You seem to have remembered it for a very long time.’ I laughed out loud at this—the ludicrous idea that I had been waiting ever since that day, thirty years ago, to exact revenge. And she laughed too, and there the matter rested. But I realised in that moment how peculiar the way such memories are transformed into fiction might seem to someone involved in the original incident. Of course the incident hadn’t entered my head for decades; only when I was thinking hard and creatively about child siblings, needing something to illustrate their tussling and jostling, did it return to me, serving a useful purpose in my book.
My sister later said she was initially taken aback by my use of the incident, but then she supposed that I was entitled to it, as she could see now that it was ‘partly’ my story. I, on the contrary, had felt that as the black eye was mine, the story too was mine to do with as I wished. The fact of her involvement barely occurred to me at all.
Furthermore, what my sister didn’t remark upon, but would have been justified in doing so, is that in my book the recalled incident illuminates the character of the adult sister Mandy. It is used to underline Mandy’s adult pride and stubbornness, and the profound psychological distance between her and her siblings. These traits are not my sister’s, and my memory of the incident has no link to our adult sisterly relationship—but one can understand how it might be difficult, impossible even, for a participant in the original event to separate these things. If one part of the experience is demonstrably true, why should the rest not be so? If an emotional truth is being stated here about childhood, why should it not also be true of adulthood? Might the author be trying to convey to her sibling some message too terrible for direct telling? If not, where exactly, then, does real life end and fiction begin?
In writing my books I have so far managed not to deeply wound anyone—to my knowledge, that is; an important and chilling qualification when I dare to think of it. But this has had more than anything to do with luck, my friends’ and family’s intelligence and generosity in understanding that what I am using of their lives has, in a sense, ‘nothing to do with them’.
I hope they may have intuitively understood what I have never said to them, that writers create the deepest characters not from other people, but from themselves. As Flaubert is reported to have said of his most famous character: Mme Bovary, c’est moi! But how can a writer be sure that this is understood, or even entirely true? What right do I have to use even fragments of other people’s lives as fictional fodder? And what might other writers have to say on the matter?
Part II: Disguise, Invention and the Power of Truth—What Other Writers Say
In my wrangling over the ethics of using other people’s lives in my fiction, I turned for guidance, as I always do, to books. I wanted to know how other writers handled such dilemmas. But I found very little detailed discussion of this issue; novelists seem to address publicly issues of ethics only in passing, during discussion of other processes—glancingly and, I think, rather skittishly.
Of course this may be because most writers are unconcerned about ethics. Perhaps I am the odd one out here; at least one writer friend has accused me of self-indulgence and squeamishness when I’ve voiced my anxieties. But one writer’s squeamishness is another’s sensitivity, just as one’s fearless commitment to art is another’s ruthless exploitation of innocents. And I remain of the view that rendering of the factual into fiction is ethically complicated.
There are legal limits on novelists, of course, and occasionally a novel is pulped for fear (or proof) of defamation. Amanda Lohrey’s The Reading Group, for example, was revised and reissued in the late 1980s following an eventual cash settlement with a Tasmanian politician who claimed Lohrey defamed him in her portrayal of a political character. But most of us are not faced with defamation suits. And apart from defamation laws, there are no established ethical rules governing what kind of creative behaviour is acceptable. Each writer must respond according to his or her own conscience.
To help me dig deeper into my own opinions on this issue, I decided to ask some of my peers and more experienced colleagues to share their experiences. Did they have similar qualms? Had their views, like mine, changed over time? Did they wake in the night with guilty consciences? Did the issue ever go away?
I interviewed five Australian novelists—Helen Garner, Robert Drewe, Malcolm Knox, Ashley Hay and Tegan Bennett Daylight—on their beliefs about and practical application of ethics, to set my own experience in the wider framework of theirs.2 These interviews (though recorded) were informal and conversational, as each writer and I exchanged opinions and experiences.
It emerged that all five were indeed apprehensive about the ethics of using real life in fiction, but that their views on the matter often shifted. Their positions were not firmly entrenched, and at times they—like I did—appeared to use our discussions to excavate their own opinions on this issue.
Helen Garner’s work is famously, unashamedly autobiographical. When I asked her how much she uses her own life and the lives of others in her fiction, she replied ‘Enormously. Almost totally. And I always have’:
There are things I’ve invented; I’ve made up lots of stuff, and I’ve invented characters. But my whole urge to write has got to do with making my own experience bearable or comprehensible. I’m not interested in inventing things for any other purpose.
No stranger to fiction’s capacity to cause pain, beginning with her iconic novel Monkey Grip in the 1970s, Garner has written about being ‘haunted’ by ethics.3 Ever since Monkey Grip, Garner’s books have been contentious, with the nonfiction The First Stone leading to a particularly bitter public debate. But Garner’s novels, too—such as Other People’s Children and her latest, The Spare Room, which chronicles the terminal illness of the narrator’s friend—have always been closely scrutinised for potential ethical breaches, perhaps in part because, unlike so many writers, Garner never denies using real life and her friends as her source material. Garner was just finishing The Spare Room when I interviewed her. She said:
I wanted the book to cover the three weeks that [my friend] spent with me, and that enabled me to write it totally from my point of view, and I didn’t have to take other people’s experiences of her dying into account so much—I did it because that is what I wanted to write about, but it also removed certain ethical problems, or kind of pushed them out to the boundaries.
Some readers might be surprised to learn that, for all her experience and success as a writer, and the criticism routinely levelled at her on this very topic, Garner works hard to establish ethical boundaries in her fiction. She worries about hurting people, and said it was a key concern as she wrote:
I’m very concerned about it. I do feel strongly that I don’t want to wound people pointlessly, and I don’t want to reveal things about people that they would prefer not to be revealed. God, in every book I’ve ever written I could have written a thousand times more than I did about just about everybody that’s in it. But then sometimes I look back and I’m a bit shocked by what I did put in. Mostly stuff in Monkey Grip. But I . . . I always try to believe that if I’m tough on myself I earn the right to be tough on other people, but that doesn’t wash in the great court of public opinion.
I interviewed Robert Drewe while he was at work on his most recent short-story collection, The Rip. Author of six novels and three story collections—from The Savage Crows, written when he was twenty-eight, to The Rip, published in 2008—for several decades Drewe has been acclaimed as one of Australia’s best novelists. His professional life began in journalism, and he has also written several works of nonfiction, including the acclaimed memoir The Shark Net. Like Garner, Drewe indicated that he had very clear rules about what was and was not fair game for fiction. He wouldn’t use incidents from his family
that [I] knew would cause pain, because there has been a fair bit of pain in our family. In fact, these days I probably wouldn’t even use incidents where there was any embarrassment. You never know what someone regards as their self-image, and it’s very easy to bruise it. Even if you think someone is thick-skinned enough to deal with a passing reference, they’re always more sensitive than you think . . . I’ve got close family members who, if they weren’t family, I’d certainly detail these episodes from their lives. Some very interesting things have happened to members of my family—but I’m not going to do it because it would be terminally hurtful.
Malcolm Knox is the author of three novels—Summerland, A Private Man and Jamaica—and several nonfiction books. An acclaimed novelist and a Walkley Award–winning journalist, Knox had written in Australian Author magazine about the dilemma of using real people as fictional fodder and also has spoken publicly in interviews about the anxieties inherent in doing so. He has often based characters on old friends, but says he and they can identify clear points of fictional departure from reality. But does he have rules of engagement? ‘Yes, but I would struggle to name them,’ he said:
I suppose I think I do value the friendships more highly than the books. And I wouldn’t do anything that I thought was going to end the friendships. However, I have taken calculated risks, with friendships that have been kind of moribund for some time . . . a calculated risk that asks, ‘if he never speaks to me again, do I really care that much?’ But with those friendships that are still alive and mean a lot to me and them, I wouldn’t [take the risk].
Ashley Hay was working on two novels at the time of our interview, one of which, The Body in the Clouds, is scheduled for publication in 2010. Hay has published many essays and short stories; two nonfiction books, The Secret and Gum; and co-wrote two more nonfiction works, Herbarium and Museum. Hay is also a respected literary journalist and essayist. She freely admits that the media’s preoccupation with linking the content of novels to writers’ lives has spooked her into deliberate, sometimes unhelpful, track-covering in her own novel in progress.
In the first draft of the book [I] had no character who in any way resembled a 37-year-old female, although one has now turned up. But I was very conscious of trying to make it as far away from me as possible. Because I think you read so many reviews and blurbs and press releases about a first novel, and they’re always looking to draw the line between the writer and the book . . . there is always this presumption [about] the writer who resembles the gender and the age of the characters. So when I started this book, I was really trying not to give anyone any dots to join. Which was a bit petulant, especially when a woman around my age turned up as a character.
While some of Tegan Bennett Daylight’s realist fiction is pure invention, the author of the novels Bombora, What Falls Away and Safety, as well as short stories and books for children and teenagers, said she ‘both always and never’ writes about real people:
I take [material ranging from] small things—I suppose things as small as gestures and expressions, that sort of stuff—to things they’ve done. But if it’s something that somebody has done, I ask them if I can use it . . . I’ve really found that the rules have to change for every single character and every time you write. So I don’t have a hard and fast rule about it. Sometimes I’ve used something from someone I don’t see any more, who I’ve just fallen out of contact with, and I’ve thought about chasing them to ask them, and then I’ve thought, nup—just get on with it.
Neither I nor any of the writers I interviewed felt there was anything morally questionable about using what might be called the emotional landscape of our lives, and the lives of those around us—in fact, it’s difficult to see how fiction could be made without it. But such trawling sometimes does make us feel uneasy. I told Daylight there were two or three people I often thought of as I wrote my character Mandy, in The Children. As Mandy is a brusque, impatient character, I wasn’t going to let the real people know I had ‘used’ or even closely observed these aspects of their behaviour—because, simply, it would hurt their feelings.
Daylight recognised this process. ‘The thing is, you take a quality from someone. And that can often give the character life . . . That’s something that you need to do all the time. Say I want to write about someone who’s fussy— I’m standing around thinking, who’s fussy, who’s really particularly fussy—and how does that fussiness manifest itself?’
Her search for fussiness led her to recall a person she knew who, among other things, washed cling wrap after using it and hung it on the clothesline. Daylight had sounded this out with the real cling-wrap-washer’s relative, who first told Daylight of it, but not the washer herself, whom she also knows— because, she said as she laughed ruefully, ‘there’s a certain line where ruthlessness has to be drawn!’
As with my uncle’s fall from the roof or the letter in the hedge, such a specific, telling detail is often the spur to fiction, and writers can be quite determined about using such details. When I told Robert Drewe about asking my mother-in-law’s permission to use her letter in the hedge, he responded:
I’d use the letter-in-the-hedge thing regardless. I wouldn’t ask. That’s different. I mean key things like that, metaphorical incidents, are fine. Something where a person is badly emotionally hurt, I wouldn’t use, but that’s not in that category.
Knox agreed that using ‘small things in isolation’ was unproblematic, because they’re ‘like organ transplants. They lose the quality of being that person when you cut it out and put it into another thing.’ He was insightful about my sister’s bemusement at the glass-throwing incident in The Children:
It’s very instructive on the nature of characterisation—characterisation is a whole network that exists in the text and you’d be on dicier ground if other parts of that network corresponded more closely to your relationship with her, and the glass-throwing incident was just one of many correspondences. So to you, you can easily place that incident somewhere on the web you’ve created, but not an important or central part—whereas to her, as soon as she reads it that might become the centre of the web, and everything else becomes a message connected to it.
Indeed, most of the writers I interviewed seemed largely untroubled about using ‘insignificant’ or comic moments from other people’s real lives. Tragedy, however, was a completely different matter, and one over which many of the writers experienced continuing disquiet.
In one of her novels in progress, for example, Hay faces a dilemma resembling mine over my uncle’s accident. She wanted to use her paternal grandfather’s death in a railway accident, not just for its inherent drama but because the incident offered a grotesque irony. A railway worker, her grandfather did not fight in the Second World War; as an essential service provider he stayed in Australia and continued working on the trains. Soon after the war ended, though, a railway accident ended his life. Hay found the specific detail—and the irony of his escaping the war only to be killed by what had saved him from battle—compelling, and talked with her father about using this incident, assuring him that the story’s characters and other events would be invented. Her father seemed untroubled, but Hay remained uneasy:
But I still think when it comes to it, I have no idea how he is going to read that. [What] if my dad said, ‘I really like this novel, but must the guy die in a train accident? Can he not have been working in the mines, or fallen off a trawler?’ But the train and everything about it is so integral to everything in my head, I would have to say, ‘No, I’m sorry, it’s a train, that’s my only option here.’ Which is like your guy with the ladder—there are a million deaths you can create for people, but the one you choose kind of gets into the rest of the book.
Hay’s concerns about permission highlight how significant the specific details can become. Some writers seek permission to use aspects of their friends’ and families’ lives in their fiction, either before writing it, or after writing but before publication. But seeking permission is itself ethically complicated.
Asking permission beforehand, as Hay, Daylight and I have done, involves an inherent sleight of hand. We were all acutely aware that the ‘subjects’ could not possibly know what they had given permission for; they couldn’t have any real conception of how the material would be handled, in what context it might appear, or, perhaps most importantly, how readers would respond to it. My mother-in-law, for instance, was not to know that my use of her story would lead much later to a television discussion of my book in which the host would seize on the incident of the letter in the hedge as the defining symbol of one woman’s unfulfilled potential; the emblem of an unlived life.
But Garner was surprised that anyone would ask permission before writing. ‘Do I ask permission of people beforehand?’ she mused:
No. I don’t tell them I’m writing it until I’ve finished it. When I finished [The Spare Room]—it’s only taken about a year—the first person I told that it existed said, ‘Ooh, you sly dog!’ She said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were writing it?’ And I knew immediately the answer to that question, which was that I didn’t want anyone to be breathing down my neck while I wrote—and I didn’t want anyone to think I was writing it for anyone but myself.
On the other hand, Garner has shown manuscripts to people before publication, to varying responses—she is no stranger to wounded ‘subjects’. During our interview she detailed two or three instances in which people had been upset about her rendering of them as characters, and said she was surprised and devastated by the hurt she had caused. In most cases she believed the damage had been repaired, either by making changes before publication, or, after publication, by her apology or by the passage of time—but she knew of one person who had not forgiven her.
Knox, too, routinely shows unpublished manuscripts to people on whom he has modelled characters; however, he has found that this doesn’t necessarily prevent confusion or distress after publication. He says misinterpretation of the reality–fiction divide in his work has mostly come from people who have not read the books, but who nevertheless plant seeds of concern in the minds of individuals they somehow (sometimes by hearsay) identify as models for Knox’s characters. He divides responses into three concentric circles:
There’s the inner circle of people who know, and it’s quite easy for them to separate the invention from the reality. There’s people in the outermost circle who don’t know anybody [on whom a character might be modelled] and don’t care. And then there’s an ambiguous middle ring of people who think they know you, and have an acquaintance with you, and they interpret more truth in there than is the case.
While showing a finished manuscript to a subject rather than asking permission beforehand might seem a braver act—the stakes, after all, are far higher for the writer if she has to make changes late in the piece, when one pulled thread might unravel a whole piece—it’s also possible that the subject is less likely to refuse permission at such a late stage, not wanting to upset the writer by demanding the work be destroyed or changed. As Knox discovered, even gaining permission before publication is no safeguard against wounded feelings arising after publication. With their permission, Knox used a swimming trip to Jamaica by a group of his friends as the central scenario for his third novel, Jamaica.
When I interviewed Knox, he’d just had an unpleasant encounter with one of these friends, who had received the manuscript for perusal and given his blessing before Jamaica’s publication, but had not ever read either the manuscript or the book. Seven months after the book’s release the man had drunkenly threatened Knox at a party, blaming Jamaica for damaging his marriage, because his wife assumed the fictional drug-taking in the novel had taken place in her husband’s real life:
He had me for about an hour. At first I was saying, ‘Why would your wife believe a fiction written by somebody who wasn’t there, over the assurances of her own husband?’ And he would say, ‘Well it’s on the page, and if it’s on the page people believe it.’
Knox said the man was angry, ‘not because of the way [his wife] saw him portrayed, but because of the made-up events in the book—the running round the town trying to score drugs, which hadn’t happened’. At the time of our interview it was unclear whether this friendship would recover.
But Knox was not the only one whose work had caused damage to friendships. Several of the those I interviewed had been mortified—mostly early in their careers—to discover they had deeply wounded someone by their writing. In his first novel, The Savage Crows, Drewe said, he wrote ‘in a very affectionate way about a past relationship’.
And I couldn’t have been more amazed when the woman went apeshit, basically. Just [because] any mention had been made of a few things, a few actual incidents. The fact that she came out of it all right [in the fiction] made no difference, really. So I learned something from that. Another woman on whom I based a character to a small degree—a character who really wasn’t treated so well—loved it. So you can’t ever guess what will happen. But after that I looked at things more cautiously.
Asked about his response to his angry ex-lover’s accusations, Drewe laughed, perhaps knowing he was revealing some of the shape-shifting that writers can sometimes employ.
I said, ‘It’s not you! It’s not you, what do you mean?!’ I said, ‘I’m very surprised, because I thought you—if in fact it was you—were treated in an affectionate and respectful way.’ We got over it, and we continued to be friends. But it was touch and go, and never quite the same.
He added a brief and sober addendum that showed these issues never really disappear: ‘I’m writing a book of short stories at the moment which are pretty close to the bone and deal with male–female relationships and such things—so I will be quite attentive about these matters in the next month or so.’
Drewe’s experience with The Savage Crows demonstrated the impossibility of predicting who will and won’t be upset by fictional portrayals, and even which particular aspect of the fiction might cause offence. Disguise, in various forms, seems the most common technique novelists use to sidestep these traps. But disguise is also used for artistic, rather than ethical, reasons. Daylight described her character-creating process this way:
It starts with something small, like seeing somebody in a shop, and a character begins to cling to that, and I start to grow them and grow them from there. And then eventually I know that I need an image of somebody. So quite often, what I do without telling anybody, is take the way someone I know looks, and graft my made-up character onto their looks. And then—boom. With one of the characters in my new thing, I realised a friend’s mother was exactly the way I wanted her to look. And nobody needs to know that—because you know, when you read a physical description of a character and it says they’ve got black hair and dark brooding eyes, everybody’s black hair and brooding eyes are different. So it doesn’t matter.
Knox concurred that art, rather than ethics, is often the determining factor: ‘It’s not so much about doing things for the purpose of disguise, it’s doing things for the demands of the story.’ For Garner, on the other hand, disguise is a useless artifice; for her, camouflage only limits artistic expression. In an earlier interview she had said:
I used to think I should apply camouflage. When I tried, my attempts were primitive and clumsy. These days it happens by itself. At a certain point, the whole concoction sort of gels. I lose the demarcation line between ‘reality’ and what I’m inventing. And then I’m free. It’s no longer a person, then. It’s become a character. The more experienced I get, the more confident I feel about this.4
In my own writing and from conversations with other writers, it has always surprised me how effective the most superficial alteration seems to be (swapping a person’s gender, say, or, turning their hair from black to blond) in disguising the identity of the original source of a behaviour or personality. But, inversely, many writers have anecdotes of people wrongly identifying themselves in a story because of some glancing similarity. Daylight noted:
I’ve had [a young man] say to me, ‘I see you put me in your book.’ And I’m saying, ‘Nup! No way! That is no way anything like you. I didn’t even have the remotest notion of you in my head as I wrote that.’ And it was because one character in one of my books played the guitar— people play the fucking guitar all the time!—and this guy who was a guitar player thought it was him. And I said, ‘No, it’s not you, it’s not even a little bit like you!’
Garner was amused by Daylight’s example. ‘That just shows you the depth of narcissism,’ she said. It reminded her of a story against herself:
I remember once meeting a bloke I rather fancied, who was a writer. We had a brief affair. His new book, when I met him, was already with the publisher. But when the book came out I thought, I wonder if I’m in the book? And I knew I couldn’t possibly be in the book because I hadn’t even met him when he was writing it! Even so, I eagerly rushed out to read it, thinking, I wonder if there’s anyone in here who’s anything like me? It was like, pull yourself together, woman!
This leads to a point that recurred in several of my conversations with these writers: contrary to being distressed at finding themselves in a book, some people seemed to wish for it. Several of the writers had examples in which people had mistakenly, but seemingly with pleasure, identified themselves or their loved ones in stories. And perhaps this goes to the heart of fiction’s raison d’être—that its purposes include to articulate, illuminate or honour the experiences of its readers. And not just readers, some writers say. Garner has a firm belief that the illuminative, restorative power of fiction is not only for readers, but sometimes for those who have been written about. She had shown the manuscript of The Spare Room to some of the people on whom she based characters:
They’ve liked it a lot. One particular person liked it very much. And I think in a way, if you’re writing a book that puts into words things that the other people involved in the incidents couldn’t—if people are suffering from the inexpressibility of what happened around a series of events, they seem to be almost grateful that somebody has said, ‘Okay, let’s see if we can shape this into something bearable.’ . . . It’s useful to have a story made out of your experience, not just for the writer.
The writers I spoke to were sometimes surprisingly candid about their motives, and the self-serving ways in which they went about the business of selecting from life. Daylight and I both snickered in uncomfortable recognition as she detailed the basis on which she would use something from a person she knew. ‘The line is different with every person: how far removed the person is from you, how good the material is, how likely is it that the person will come baying for your head, how far away they live from you—all that sort of stuff.’
Geographical distance, in fact, was often perceived as an ameliorating factor—I certainly clutched at it in using both my uncle’s death and my journalist friend’s job. But distance in time from the material also recurred as a factor. In Safety, Daylight wrote about a school friend who was killed when they were both sixteen, and had been resisting writing about it since. But why did she resist?
Because I wanted to wait until I understood it better, and I didn’t want to use it in a looking-for-sympathy way. And also because I was really aware that she belongs—the person belongs to other people. And I wanted to be sure that I could handle the material properly and sensitively, I suppose.
Importantly, Daylight used the quality of the fiction as the benchmark of acceptability:
I don’t really know how it is different than if I had written it twenty years ago, except it’s less sentimental, and it’s crisper, and it’s not so weighted down with self-drama as it might have been if I’d written it twenty years ago. But the change has taken place in me, maybe not in the material.
But sometimes this change takes place not in the writer but in the subject. Garner’s 2002 essay in Meanjin details how the man who became the character named Javo in Monkey Grip visited her decades later and, in a complete about-face from his rage at the time it was published, said he now wished Garner had used his and others’ real names. Another time, she used an incident someone had told her, without including any identifying details in the story:
I put it in a book in such a way that nobody else would connect it to her, but of course she would have recognised it. She never complained to me . . . but she spoke about it to a friend of both of ours who is a very good painter. He told me, ‘She came to me and said, in a pained way: “Look what Helen’s written.” I read it, and I said, “But look, it’s a beautiful story, it’s beautiful.”’ She went away and didn’t mention it to me at all. Then ten years later, she said to me, ‘I’m really proud that you wrote about me.’ It had never caused us any real difficulty in our relations—I mean, I didn’t think it would, and I took a punt on it. But when she said, ‘I’m proud that I was in that story’—phew. But it took a long time. A long time maybe for her to get far enough away from the experience.
This closeness to the experience sometimes leads ‘subjects’ into what Garner termed ‘a sort of panic blindness’ when they first read a piece—that is, they read it completely differently from how a disinterested party might. Garner related how she showed the manuscript of the nonfiction Joe Cinque’s Consolation to her subject’s ageing parents, whom by then she knew well. Joe Cinque’s father read the first few lines of the opening page and then shouted that what Garner had written was wrong—his son had died in Canberra, not Sydney!
And I freak. I think, but what on earth is he talking about? But then Maria, his wife, said ‘No, no, Nino! She says Sunday, not Sydney.’ He’d been in such a panic that he couldn’t even see what the word was. Of course he can tell the difference between ‘Sunday’ and ‘Sydney’, but in his grief and anguish about it, he just couldn’t even see the word. It was awful. And I’ve never forgotten that, because I’m sure that’s just a very extreme example of what people do when they pick up a book that they know is going to be about something that was in their life.
The media may bear responsibility for some of these issues. Journalism’s tendency to scour novelists’ own lives for the ‘real’ sources of fictional people and events weighs heavily on some writers, as Hay described. She and others expressed frustration with the way public discussion—and promotion—of novels has a reductive effect on the way people read.
Some readers’ desires for fiction to be literally true to life is often quite overtly revealed in questions at writers’ festivals or public readings. I recently gave a talk in which I thought I spoke quite clearly about the various research and imaginative processes that led to the creation of The Children. At the end of the talk one woman raised her hand and said, as if to clear something up: ‘So this is a true story.’ Mystified, I explained that no, I had made it up. She seemed puzzled, and said, in what I thought was a slightly annoyed tone: ‘But it’s your family.’ A similar question was put to me at a recent writers festival, following the same explanation of my processes, where an audience member asked how my family felt about being in my novel. Even more bizarrely, someone I know well told me she remembered my telling her that the restaurant family argument scene which takes place in The Children came from an argument my own family had over a similar dinner in real life. As the scene in question is entirely invented, I have no explanation for this. For me, and I suspect for many novelists, there comes a point at which one gives up trying to explain the lines of separation between life and art.
Another question arose during my discussions about writers’ ethics. Might some of our solutions to ethical problems that we described be artistic solutions motivated more by improving the quality of the fiction than for any moral reason?
Yes, said Drewe. He used a combination of research and fiction-writing techniques in his portrait of the real serial killer in his memoir The Shark Net, in order to humanise the killer. He said: ‘It sounds a bit weird in the context of normal law-abiding people, but with a serial killer I found—because he was as bad as it was possible to be—some sort of ethical restraint in that I needed to show him as a human being.’ Was that an ethical or an artistic decision? ‘Both,’ he said. ‘It was more interesting, I guess artistically, to show another side to him. To show him as a parent who loved his children, as well as being insane, in my view.’
Drewe also applied this question to his general choice not to write about his own family in fiction. His family might be irresistible material for other writers, but not for him. ‘Maybe you just steer yourself away from potential conflict with people you love . . . I don’t think I’ve edited it in that way; [rather] it’s just not immensely appealing to me as a fiction topic. A memoir is different, of course. It’s a bit hard to avoid family there.’
Did the other writers see any overlaps between ethical and artistic choices? Garner did: ‘Where there’s a strong possibility that you could deeply wound somebody, I wonder if you’ve already got a kind of rein on you, when you start to write, so that in a sense you’re looking all the while for artistic solutions to the ethical dilemmas,’ she said. Knox agrees that ethical and creative solutions can sometimes merge:
I want to get away from those people, that type I had in Summerland and Jamaica. What I’m working on now is not about that type at all, that milieu. I would see that as an artistic solution to an artistic problem that has a happy ethical by-product. And it is a happy ethical by-product—I would certainly prefer not to be entangled in this way.
But even novelists anxious about their own ethical practice often express readerly gratitude that other writers have had no such delicate sensibilities. Would we have missed out on Goethe’s or Dickens’ or Faulkner’s or Didion’s books for the sake of hurt feelings? For Knox, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is a case in point:
In Search of Lost Time has probably been the most influential book on me over the years . . . I’m fully aware that he plundered his own life and endangered a lot of friendships and hurt people and all of that because of it. But do I think, as a reader a hundred years down the track, oh he shouldn’t have done that? No. No!
So is everything fair game for material, in the pursuit of art? Drewe thinks it is—at least theoretically. ‘Yes, I think anything’s fair game—you make the choice whether to use it; it’s a personal choice . . . exceptions would crop up every minute as well—but broadly speaking, I think everything’s fair game in art. If the work’s good enough.’ This qualification—the quality of the work—often arose in these conversations as a distinction between justifiable and unjustifiable use of other people’s lives. But all the writers seemed to know the defence was a shaky one. As Garner said:
Just any old art, or Art as a kind of diaphanous, abstract concept, isn’t going to stack up against people’s sore pride or wounded feelings. But—if you can turn what you’ve taken into something where people feel resolved, or that the work is good, or that it has some value, then you’ve got an argument. But unfortunately, if someone’s really deeply wounded and outraged, it’s probably going to take them twenty years to come around, if ever—and furthermore it could take thirty or forty years to show whether your book is really a piece of art that’s going to last. Anybody that’s been married to an artist knows that . . . terrible things have been done in the name of art.
I asked Daylight whether she thought artists had special rights that ordinary people didn’t. She said it wasn’t a matter of ‘rights’:
All artists have is special jobs that other people don’t have. There isn’t an equivalent in the non-artistic life for this. So no, I don’t think we do have special licence . . . But I don’t believe in being completely namby-pamby about this because if you were, you couldn’t write anything. And it’s your job to laugh at the world and make fun of the world and show how sad it is, and show how beautiful it is, and show how ugly it is. And you can’t do that if you’re constantly censoring yourself. But at the same time, you can’t just pretend that other people’s feelings don’t exist.
The more I write, the more I seem to draw from my life and the lives of people I love. As I continue to do so, so will ethical questions keep presenting themselves. Is it right to risk hurting other people for the sake of my art? Who owns the stories? What exactly is the nature of the harm that might be caused? Do I in fact have an obligation, as some artists believe, to hover in the lives of others, picking and choosing elements of them to use in my fiction as I wish? Or is this some treacherous moral trespass—on their privacy, against our bonds?
I still cannot answer these questions with any certainty. As my fiction begins to mature, all I am sure of is that sometimes the only version of an incident, the only aspect of character that has any ring of authenticity—any of the power of truth—is the true one. Invention or disguise serve only to rob such instances of their essential nature, diluting their power or even erasing it entirely.
We writers are the only people who may be able to pinpoint the exact delineations between life and fiction in our work, and to describe the transformative processes involved, yet we rarely discuss the ethics of this in public. Perhaps this is because we all know that, no matter how much we deny it, or try to minimise the damage we cause, theft from the lives of others (and the potential to cause pain as a result) is at the heart of the novelist’s practice. It is a deeply uncomfortable, complex moral problem that has always been with us, and will never disappear.
Perhaps its laying bare of this insolubility is another reason I like Sedaris’s ‘Repeat after Me’ so much. At the close of the story, in which Sedaris has so offhandedly wounded his sister, he presents a ‘real’ ending, but then offers a dreamlike alternative. In this other possible ending, the narrator creeps out from his room in the night to unveil the cage of his sister’s talking parrot:
[He] approaches it carefully and removes the cloth, waking a blue-fronted Amazon parrot, its eyes glowing red in the sudden light. Through everything that’s gone before this moment, we understand that the man has something important to say. From his own mouth the words are meaningless, and so he pulls up a chair. The clock reads 3 a.m., then four, then five, as he sits before the brilliant bird, repeating slowly and clearly the words ‘Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.’
- David Sedaris, ‘Repeat after Me’, in his Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Little, Brown, 2004, pp. 141-56.
- All quotations from these authors refer to my interviews with them, conducted in 2007 and 2008, unless otherwise stated.
- Helen Garner, ‘I’, Meanjin, no. 1, 2002, pp. 40-3.
- Helen Garner, quoted in Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe, Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2001, p.67.