By Tamara Hunter
There’s a great UK website specialising in gifts for writers and one of them is a t-shirt which says: ‘Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel’.
You laugh and think “Ahh, writers” quickly followed by “Uh oh” because you know that a) many a true word is said in jest and b) if you know a writer, there’s a good chance that, like acclaimed Australian author Frank Moorhouse, they’re packing a secret stash of notecards, a diary or a meticulous mental record of obscure features and events everywhere they go. Anyone who strays into the path of a writer is, intentionally or otherwise, potential fodder – and the results are not always flattering.
Writers know they tread a precarious line when it comes to immortalising friends, loved ones or even casual contacts via their stories and it was a subject which came up repeatedly at the Perth Writers Festival – just how do authors deal with the ethics of roping others, unwittingly or unwillingly, into their own subjective narratives?
“It’s an uneasy trade-off,” admitted Vogel short-listed author Michael Sala during the festival session, ‘Stories that Spill Out from Real Experiences’.
“You have this terrible, terrible power as an author. You can literally take revenge on everyone if you want to. They’re all subject to how you design the story. You have got to be a little scared of that, I think.”
Sala’s debut novel is The Last Thread, a fictionalised version of his own turbulent and secrecy-filled childhood. He said his main ethical dilemma when writing the book concerned his older brother, whom he cared for a great deal but who came off less than positively in the resulting story.
“I had the dilemma of ‘is it my business to talk about it?’ I love my brother deeply but he was often violent and cruel. He said later ‘I was often angry at you because you didn’t know what was going on’.”
When Sala’s brother read the book he told him that, while it was difficult, he was happy Sala had written it and thought their mother also needed to read it. During the writing phase their mother – whose ‘cheerful apathy’ in the face of the boys’ bullying stepfather had devastating consequences – anticipated a very different kind of book and spoke of getting copies for her friends. Sala did not correct her, suggesting only that she might want to read it first.
“I think my version of events was really different and that really frightened me,” he said.
In the end his mother got no further than the blurb, too upset to read more.
Sala said a friend handled a similar dilemma by waiting until his mother was dead before writing about their relationship. “For me I had to almost pretend they were not around anymore in order to write. There is all this guilt involved, so you are trying to balance it all out. There is that element where you don’t have a moral leg to stand on.”
Author and former journalist Craig Sherborne’s experience was just as fraught. Sherborne received no quarter from friends, family members and others when he wrote about the moral dilemma he had faced – and handled badly – as a young man when his partner, an older woman, became ill just as he was falling out of love with her.
He initially tackled the issue in an essay following his former lover’s death and then used it as the basis of his fictional book The Amateur Science of Love and was roundly criticised.
“It gave me pause and made me reassess what I was doing with my life…like maybe become a farmer,” he wryly told those at the ‘Real Experiences’ session. “But (the writing urge) comes to you again and it’s time to give this compulsion its head again, like some beast – go forth!”
Like Sala, he decided pure fiction might be a safer route next time.
“The initial sobering reaction to the essay was quite seminal. I (thought) I don’t know if I can be bothered going through that again. I’m not a bad person, I’m not. There’s no way you can respond to that much criticism.
“Writing isn’t for everybody and goodness knows what it is in your DNA that suddenly makes you, coward that you may be, the one that says ‘I’ll write that’.”
Author Favel Parrett found the process of writing about long-ago personal events equally gut-wrenching. She spoke in two sessions (‘Real Experiences’ and ‘From Little Things…’) about her anguish over her decision to write about a childhood event which continued to affect her years later – the death, after being hit by a car, of her little brother’s best friend.
Parrett, whose first novel Past The Shallows received universal acclaim, worried that telling the story would revive sadness not only for her brother – it did, although he was okay with her publishing the piece – but for the parents of the deceased child. She considered changing the boy’s name but realised it would make no difference due to the small-town nature of the location.
She went on to publish a 600-word short story on the incident, No Man is an Island, in The Griffith Review and has since used it as the basis of her next novel.
“It was something I thought about a lot,” Parrett said. “In the end I decided to put it out there because it was something that affected me greatly and I wanted to write about it. I had that itch and wanted to explore the impact that event had on my life for quite a few years.”
Some authors, like writer and Curtin University lecturer Rachel Robertson, handle the dilemma by changing the names of those involved. In Reaching One Thousand, Robertson wrote about her relationship with her son, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. She changed everyone’s name but her own and ran the book past loved ones who, like her, were protective of her son, to confirm that it would not be damaging for him.
“I saw it as a mark of respect in a way to change the names,” she told the ‘Laying it on the Line’ session. “By using different names and being honest about them I am reminding the reader: ‘This is my take on this. This isn’t what really happened or the whole truth. This is my understanding’.”
Screenwriter, blogger and broadcaster Marieke Hardy, whose acerbic, voyeuristic and outrageously entertaining memoir You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead includes revealing stories about ex-lovers, passionate friendships and a swingers’ party, told the same session that in her case, the decision to use real names felt more honest and honourable.
“Children are different, but to me – and I know as a result of using real names I sort of drag my friends and family into the vortex – but it just felt fraudulent to use false names,” Hardy said. “If one person had asked me to use false names I would have taken them out.”
However, the knowledge that she was writing about real people led her – in an act of ‘grand generosity’ which some writers wouldn’t even contemplate – to give anyone featured in her book a right of reply.
“They’re real people and they have a real voice and you are the person with the pen,” she said. “Once you put these people down…they exist that way forever. It’s your responsibility. You froze them in that moment in time and that’s the difficulty for the people involved as well.”
After showing some people featured in her book what she had written about them “things were a little cool for a while,” with one former partner describing her recollections as “a bit bendy”.
Author Krissy Kneen, whose sexual memoir Affection garnered widespread praise for the beauty and honesty of the writing, said she thought long and hard about including some people. She tried to find a balance by changing the names of those she was no longer in touch with and asking those featured in more recent events if they wanted to be named.
“I did change some names because I couldn’t contact them and ask if they were happy to be in the book,” Kneen told the Laying it on the Line session. “There were a lot of people and some of them I didn’t get their names anyway. It was a wild time. I kind of had forgotten who they were in real life, (and remembered) only my perception of them.
“The ones in the current story, I asked them if they wanted to be named. They’re not all very sexual people and it’s a sexual autobiography.”
She said she hadn’t considered representing their recollections of the same situations because, as a memoir dealing with sex and love, it was necessarily about her version of events.
“The stuff I struggled with was stuff about my family,” she said. “If someone has been to bed with me that’s kind of a contract right there, but my family didn’t have that option.”
The comment elicited a classic Marieke Hardy response: “Don’t sleep with a writer.”
And that, perhaps, is the most foolproof advice of all.
Craig Sherborne’s memoir Hoi Polloi was shortlisted for the Queensland and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The follow-up, Muck, won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-fiction. Amateur Science of Love is his first novel.
Rachel Robertson (WA) is a writer and lecturer in Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University. Her new book is Reaching One Thousand: A story of love, motherhood and autism.