We’ve seen it before. There is, say, a mass murderer in the news. On a round-table news programme that evening will be a leading figure in the police, a criminal psychologist, and then someone who has written fiction about a serial killer. Currently, because of the world-wide protest over the way rape is handled in India, Arundhati Roy’s interviews, blogs and essays about the subject are in much demand.
But what do we know? What do writers really know about the things they write about?
We are notoriously outsiders…we lurk and observe. We chase up bits of evidence from strange sources (I used the data from Hurricane Katrina survivors to estimate how long it would take before Bristol and Bath were uninhabitable for the novel I’m currently writing) and apply it willy-nilly, without proper training, to our narratives. Our job is all about making things convincing, not about getting our facts right.
So what do we really know?
What we do well is wonder and guess. A novel can be seen as a form of investigation, a long wondering about something. I think of my work as if I was walking around the cage of a giant beast, poking it with a stick. I’m not in charge of catching the beast. I’m not in charge of noting its reactions or making decisions on its captivity. My job is just the poking.
We wonder and we ask. And we make shadows of the world; shadows that in one way, have no truth at all…but in another…
You see our value isn’t in what we do, but why we do it. We think, when we begin a book, that we can imagine ourselves into another world, another body, another self. We realise, about halfway through that this isn’t going to work, that we are only writing another story, but it doesn’t make the yearning go away, or make the effort we put into trying any less.
If we weren’t, as humans, aware of our consciousness and aware that there are other consciousnesses, we wouldn’t have the yearning in the first place. We want, so badly, to escape ourselves; to experience the world in other ways, to learn what we in our own circumstances can’t learn, to eat what we in our own circumstances can’t eat, to love the people that we in our own circumstances can’t love.
Writers just want that more; we want those stories so much that we’ll spend years of our lives writing them. And these, the truthless shadows that we make, can be so powerful, such useful ways into understanding that we sometimes get a phone call to come and sit around a table and talk about what we don’t really know.