I'm really excited to share this interview I did for The Brooklyn Rail about the relationship between writing fact and fiction. It's with a group of writers I love (Stephani Nur Colby, Sarina Prabasi, Judith Krummeck, Neile Parisi, Sharyn Skeeter), who yes, full-disclosure, I'm working with on their book promotion efforts. Please do check it out, share the piece far and wide, let me know if you have any questions or comments and most definitely give me a shout if you want to help support the promotion of these authors and their book in any fashion. Also, please enjoy some excerpt below.
Rail: We immediately find ourselves with a "tension," to quote Judith. Facts can be tools for creating art, but with truth so often blurred these days, is there an obligation to be clear about what is fact and what is not. So now I ask you, in the current political and social climate, do artists have a greater obligation to focus on identifying what is truth and what isn’t?
Prabasi: The obligation of artists is to be true to their art. If that art is story-telling, then the obligation is to the story. All art is political, in what it contains, what it obscures, or who it centers. This is not to say that all art is about politics, but that it is shaped by power relations, and societal norms of the time, and the artist's own place within that society. An artist makes choices in how to tell the story, and those choices are also revealing. The interplay or the dynamic tension is what makes the art interesting. As a writer of mainly creative non-fiction, I feel the obligation remains to tell the story well, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, or something in between.
Skeeter: Though these were certainly not the first to blend fact and fiction, I think the most recent trend might have started with the New Journalism writers of the 1970s. Those were writers like Wolfe and Capote who, like regular journalists, investigated for facts, but then used fictional techniques to write their books and reports. (Unfortunately, some New Journalists abused this by using more fiction than fact.) This worked when readers understood that what they were reading were dramatized accounts of factual material. This morphed into what we call now “creative nonfiction.” With that, I think readers expect facts as presented through the writer’s viewpoint. Fiction writers saw this as a way to expand their own writing to use facts in their own imaginative works. It’s not unusual to see actual events and people as characters in literary novels. (Of course, this has always been done in historical fiction.) One example is Charles Johnson’s characterization of Martin Luther King Jr., in his literary novel Dreamer. I prefer to call my novel Dancing with Langston biofiction because I use some of Doyle’s biography—and to a lesser degree that of the other characters—in a purely fictional setting. The question of “what is truth?” is one that has challenged philosophers for ages. However, for me and many artists in all media, truth is looking beyond what are considered common facts for deeper meanings that might give the readers or viewers a better understanding of their own humanity. To me, that view of truth is what art is about.
Krummeck: Well, let’s take The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. When Atwood is asked if her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian world, her response is, “Let us hope so.” Even though artists are a reflection of their political and social climate—it’s no secret that Margaret Atwood’s sequel was spurred by the Trump administration—I wonder if they run the risk of inhibiting the very essence of being artists if they take too literally their responsibility of identifying what is truth and what is not. Atwood’s response to the current political and social climate was to revisit the dystopian world of Gilead. It makes just as strong a statement by being set in a world that is (for now at least!) pure fantasy. While a good journalist does a superb job of sorting truth from untruth, I think a creative writer’s responsibility is different. It’s more about striving to be a trustworthy writer, in the sense that we trust Atwood’s world even as we know it’s made up. It’s for that reason that I felt I needed to take the reader into my confidence about giving my imagination free reign in trying to recreate Sarah’s life in Old New Worlds, so that it was clear I wasn’t trying to pass off my suppositions as fact.
Colby: Vivid writing is present in both fiction and nonfiction categories, to our benefit and pleasure. However, I do not believe that colorful writing blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction unless we want it to do so. While acknowledging that everything described in a nonfiction book cannot usually be factually exactly true (as in some recalled childhood dialogs), descriptions and assertions can remain accurate in relation to the true character and history of what took place. And I believe that identifying the book’s genre in this respect matters. For example, my nonfiction book is a spiritual memoir. I worked very hard to make it as true to life as possible. One of the reasons I wrote this book is to encourage people who may have been afraid to acknowledge their spiritual experiences, perhaps even to themselves, to do so as something meaningful and real. If there is a question in the reader’s mind as to whether I might or might not be making up certain incidents or experiences, that would undercut one of the main purposes and possible benefits of the book. I’m in sympathy with some of my fellow writers’ attempts to delineate this tricky territory with terms such as “biofiction” and “faction,” but I also think that “autobiographical novel” remains a useful and respectable term—as is “creative nonfiction” for books like my memoir. Given that “truth [is] so often blurred these days,” it is more important than ever to make these genre distinctions. A feeling of hopelessness and pointlessness can arise when people “don’t know what to believe.” Speaking from my experience as a group-home housemother to troubled boys, I think the lack of standards based in truth, not just subject to the whims of the moment, was as damaging to them, if not more, than the active abuse they received. Truth may be varied but it does exist. Being clear with our readers about the dependability of what we’ve written is a critical responsibility that affects society and the ongoing tone of our culture.
Parisi: Do I have an obligation as an author to identify what is true and what is not? There is no simple answer. I have a challenge because the border between fact and fiction is sometimes blurred. There is no simple path to truth. But there is creative justice. As a journalist your first responsibility is to the truth. It is true, writing nonfiction means you have a responsibility to be truthful and relay the facts. But you also have to craft a compelling story for the reader. You must use dialog to accomplish this. You must show more than tell. You actually contract with a reader that if they will commit to read your book, you will tell them a story. If you break that contract, the reader will no longer trust you. In a work of nonfiction you are sharing to the best of your abilities about what you think is true. I heard an author say, “all fiction is true in one universe or another.” At times fiction can tell more truth than nonfiction. But basically readers go to fiction for entertainment and fun, and nonfiction for content and subject matter. For example, you cannot take liberties when writing about military history, you must be factual. But if the issue is not of accuracy, but of aesthetics you can take certain liberties like describing a museum that you never actually entered. Many readers are seeking authenticity even in works of fiction, knowing that nonfiction is believed to be authentic. On the other hand, memoir authors often alter facts to suit their needs. Changing names even slightly can give the author greater freedom. But considering that the most interesting characters are those that are made up, created in the writer’s imagination, we sometimes misrepresent the truth. I think whether something is true or not is what is actually perceived by the reader and it is my job to give the facts when necessary and to leave the other information up to the reader’s imagination or belief system.