Write What You Don’t Know
Writers are allowed to make shit up.
What made me decide to set one of my first short stories in New York, when at that point I hadn’t been to America? It felt right for the tale but I got the details wrong. Luckily a good editor bailed me out and made it more authentic. ‘Write what you know’ is terrible advice, since many young broke writers don’t know a lot, so their stories are too often set in schools, at home with parents, on public transport or just walking around, and they’re prosaic.
But books are limited only by your imagination and can be unfettered by research that uncovers extraordinary details about the world we live in. An old friend began her novel with a man sitting on a brandy barrel on the prow of a ship, watching the coast approach. Then we discover that Dr Polidori is sitting on the body of his patient, Lord Byron, pickled in brandy.
It’s a terrific image that she (the author) stumbled across, but she failed to find a publisher for the book, which was a wonderful read, yet every tale of a single mother seeking closure with her dying father seems to be published because they’re ‘relatable’. I care little for relatable material – I admire disruption. I’m happier leaving the prosaic behind and exploring the surreal.
It’s remarkable how many novels are now rooted down with appearances from real people. Did ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ need to be about Abraham Lincoln? As far as I could tell, not remotely, as the terrible grief of a lost child is universal. But it seems many readers don’t trust writers unless they add a strong real-life element. This is partly because it’s a lot easier to get festival space and press coverage for a non-fiction book.
When HG Wells wrote ‘War of the Worlds’ he had no experience of a Martian invasion, but he understood the fear of an unknown enemy. Mary Renault’s vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato, and Alexander the Great somehow feel right although of course they probably aren’t, any more than Robert Harris’s Cicero is right or Marguerite Yourcenar’s ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ has verisimilitude. Is Hilary Mantel doggedly following historical minutiae in her ‘Wolf Hall’ books, or is she imagining Thomas Cromwell’s life and filling in the parts she doesn’t – and cannot – know?
In fact Ulfela – the original Domesday Book name for Wolf Hall, is irrelevant in the Cromwell story and was chosen to evoke the idea that man is a wolf to others.
I developed an allergy to heartwarming tales of self-development because at school I was bombarded with perversely surreal words and images. We loved Monty Python because it not only horrified our parents but they couldn’t understand its odd, disruptive, callous attitude. Brophy, Ballard, BS Johnson, Orton, Antrobus and others were in our libraries, on stage and in cinemas. I remember seeing the post-apocalyptic ‘The Bed Sitting Room’ with its escalator leading through a field of smashed teacups to the submerged dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and knew that these were stories of dream-logic, ideas, proclamations and issues, not kitchen-sink tales of single mums and dying fathers.
We weren’t content to be fascinated with our own internal lives – which probably explains my hatred of the selfie – but wanted to look around outside. And outside there were places and people we had no experience of. It didn’t matter, because there’s another rule; writers are allowed to make shit up. Hilary Mantel did not need to be told about the behaviour of men. The truths she applies to her stories may come from her imagination but have the ring of authenticity.