In an insane world, write fantastic fiction
At any given moment, life is a mess of contradiction. It seems to be true that it’s always the best of times and the worst times. A new baby is born and a good friend is facing appalling illness. A loved one is celebrating, yet the political landscape looks grim.
In the midst of joy and loss, I’m also in the midst of a trilogy of novels. finished a novel. The first book in the sequence has been simmering in me for over 30 years. The actual writing was more recent, but some of the events that informed it and later became reshaped and fictionalised have very deep roots.
In a world crying out for global solutions, what business have we writing stories and poems? There are so many reasons why writing, or any art, is vital, no matter how uncertain the times. It has many functions, including:
Offering different perspectives
Of all the books I’ve written, it’s the one I’m most passionate about. It’s a novel that says the personal and the political are not disparate, but intertwined. And it’s a novel that says when the world is going to hell, when culture is being harried, when divisiveness is on on every corner, then we need other ways of seeing. Sometimes these are perspectives that only story can provide.
It may feel self-indulgent to write while people suffer, but shutting up artists — whether visual or of the word would assist the tide of insanity. Downing pens, paint brushes and cameras would let the rise of hatred and suffering overwhelm us and have its way. My novel is not salvation. One exquisite photograph, one exceptional poem, one inspiring sculpture will not save the world. But each of these acts of art is something — something that has the opportunity to agree with Cervantes that:
When life seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness … — and maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be.
We can resist madness where we see it. We can mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. We can refuse to dumb down. Above all, we can make art and literature that will not accept the way things are. Stories offer the possibility of an alternative. This, at least, is one good reason to write fiction in an insane world.
Questioning the facts
Life and fiction are rarely hard and fast boundaries. In writing This is the the End of the Story, I wanted to explore how fact and fiction merge. How they blur into one another, are subjective and slippery. It was a line of thinking inspired by Don Quixote.
In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sancho tries to make it otherwise, not by keeping these two ‘categories’ apart, but by trying to make fact and story congruent — for him a story has to be ‘true’ or ‘authentic’. He has to tell a story has to in a certain way and it has to be conformist and not invite trouble –
…the ancients didn’t begin their stories just as they pleased … your worship must stay quiet and not go anywhere seeking harm, … turn up some other road, since nobody is making us follow this one, where there are so many terrors to frighten us.
Quixote will have none of this. Seeking truth (rather than fact) and justice makes him live ‘as if’ these things were already the way of the world. Quixote has an extreme utopian vision that changes reality through perspective. But this doesn’t make for an easy life. The giant windmills (corporations, media, war-machines) want to destroy what is humane, hopeful and visionary.
When we write, we ave the opportunity to pose important questions. And we can do it with elegance and subtlety.
Witnessing the personal and political
This is the End of the Story is set in the 1970s, an era of strikes, the three-day week, and rising unemployment. An era of hot hot summers, droughts, psychedelic clothes, the Yorkshire Ripper…
Life is so often both the best of times and the worst of times and I wanted a fiction that would reflect that. How? I have a lot of sympathy with Keats in hating poetry that has a palpable design on us. In the same way, fiction that is didactic can be tedious. I didn’t want rants or great expository lumps intruding in a novel that is character-driven. I opted instead for a device used in the film version of The Children of Men (better than the original P D James novel). In the film, the politics is in the background. Dystopian devastation, protests and bombings take place behind the main action and go unmentioned. A C Clarke does a similar thing in her excellent poetry collection, In the Margin, using events from the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign as asides, barely noticed by the persona and her lover, caught up in an affair.
A Quixote-inspired novel with a major character bent on the pursuit of justice can’t ignore political realities. But I used vignettes, interleaved between the non-liner chapters in which the coming of age story plays out. This hints at an ambivalent attitude towards political engagement. In each vignettes there is also a report on the current music charts and the weather. This is partly because the weather is a metaphor for the story unfolding in the main chapters. But it’s also because we live in a society that undercuts the seriousness of world or domestic crises by placing them alongside the frivolous.
Raising questions of tolerance
Cervantes has remarkable for his sympathy with Spain’s Moors. Towards the end of writing This is the End of the Story I went to Toledo to look for traces of Casilda. She was a young Moorish princess who later became a Christian saint buried at Burgos, in Northern Spain.
Casilda is fascinating as someone who converted from Islam to become a Christian saint. Her unrequited lover, Ben Haddaj returned to the religion of his fathers, Judaism. And Casilda’s faithful nurse remained a loyal Muslim, as did her brother and father, though they made alliances with Christian princes.
There are times when belief and tolerance live together, but that didn’t last in Spain, as in so many other places.
The stones of the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz, one of the few buildings that would have been there in Casilda’s life, record this breakdown of tolerance. There is an apse built onto the beautiful little mosque, painted with Christ triumphant, and a crucifix surveying all.
The exquisite synagogues in Toledo were also ‘christianised’ when the Jews were later expelled from Spain. The move from Cosmopolitan to myopic, from tolerance to hatred was often swift and brutal. A familiar story.
I wanted to reflect that tension in This is the End of the Story. Miriam is the only Jewish girl in an otherwise homogeneous school, whilst Cassie is Christian, but stands out for being Catholic. They encounter intolerance from anti-Semitic bullies and a well-meaning, but insensitive Anglican curate. The nature of belief — not only religious, but in humanity or goodness itself, is a key theme in the book.
It’s a theme I return to in the second book, when Cassie, now Catherine, dreams the life of a Hungarian Jewish young woman imprisoned after the 1956 uprising. But that’s another story.
Exploring the human condition
In this story, I also wanted to explore how fiction gives us a window into the human condition.
While fearless imagination belongs to Quixote, it is Sancho who lives in this interior, quixotic world. Sancho is not only loyal, but an enabler. Despite struggling to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, he believes in Quixote, and enters into Quixote’s inner world, supporting its continued existence.
These are areas that fascinate me –
how fact and fiction collide and interweave;
how one person becomes so immersed in the fantasy life of another and enables and supports it…
Children do this with great fluency. They use make believe to build give the world symbolic meaning. But somewhere along the line most of us ‘grow out’ of it. Most, but not all — and in This is the End of the Story I wanted to explore the kind of enabling that requires immersion in another’s fantasy. One character excapes into her own world of fantasy, determined to act as if the world is as she wants it to be. The other character supports her. I wanted to explore how this changes the enabler — the effects of the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us.
And so — belief is Cassie’s gift. A clever, naïve teenager from a dysfunctional home, she allows others to tell her who she is. She not only lets others name her — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, but goes along with her freinds insistence that she is a reincarnation. She is Casilda — an 11th century Muslim princess who later became a saint, a person shrouded in myth and romantic legend.
United to Miriam by this internal world, the question becomes whether Cassie has the resources to be who she chooses for herself. And when an act of betrayal so small, but so profound propels Cassie towards Liam, will Cassie allow him to tell her who she is now. It may be the end of the story. Or is it?
Asserting the power of hope
As my character, Cassie, becomes less naïve, she takes on Miriam’s quixotic legacy. Don Quixote asserts that dreams are powerful; and in the second novel Cassie, now Catherine, begins to live someone else’s life in her dreams.
On the front cover of an Ursula K Le Guin’s book, Words are my Matter, is:
Hard times are coming… We’ll need writers who can remember freedom.
Poetry, stories, art … these essentials keep alive the dream. They create spaces of possibility.
I’m in the early stages of writing the final book in the trilogy, For Hope is Always Born. But that’s another story, which begs the question — is it ever the end of the story?
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