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Is Fiction Ever Truly Fictional?
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Natural light in Steilacoom Park, WA
Natural light in Steilacoom Park, WA

It's the end of a long day and, at last, you are in bed snuggling down with a book you hope will lull you into sleep. As you turn the pages you realise, with growing horror, that you are reading about yourself. Not only that, but this book is revealing things about you which you thought no one else knew. What a dreadful invasion of privacy that would be. I am ashamed to say it is an invasion I almost made on a dear friend of mine. Not quite, but very nearly. If I hadn't sent her a copy to read first. And if a publisher had been interested in publishing it.

It was my first novel and I suspect, like many first novels, was a little too autobiographical for its own good. I had described an incident very close to one from my adolescence involving a friend. As I was fine-tuning and polishing I began to think that publication might be a possibility. And yet I hadn't shown the book to my friend or indeed even told her I was writing it. If she read it I knew she would recognise herself. Why hadn't I thought about it before? I suppose I was caught up in the process, single-minded about finishing, selfish, thoughtless -- all attributes, or failings, considered useful if you want to be a writer. Once I had thought about it though, I sent it to her and waited. Nervous, anxious. I didn't want to hurt or offend her. Thankfully I did neither and she gave me her blessing. And, as it turned out, no publisher was interested in publishing it anyway, but it got me thinking. There's nothing like a bit of anxiety and shame to fuel creativity and so I came up with the idea for Disclaimer.

Hand on heart, Disclaimer is true to its title: any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. There was no need to send out early copies to friends or family for approval. The events described in it are products of my imagination and I suspect that that is the difference between it succeeding in being published and my first novel being rejected.

It is complicated though, this notion of fiction. Writers become frustrated when readers assume their novels must, in some way, reflect their lives or the lives of people they know. I admit it irritates me. Writing fiction is the work of the imagination -- that is what writers do -- they make stuff up. Disclaimers are put in the front of books for good reason. But then... is it a little far-fetched to claim "any resemblance" and "purely coincidental"?. Most writers I know (and I include myself in this even given my past form) adhere to the belief that it is wrong to mine the lives of family and friends, but surely sometimes things can't help but spill over? Even unintentionally? Rather than be irritated, perhaps writers should be flattered when readers ask them whether a character is based on them or someone they know: they should see it as an indication of the work's authenticity. And yet it is hard not to see such questions as undermining creative endeavour. Is it really so hard to imagine that someone can make up a story that feels so real the reader thinks it must be based on actual events or people?

Perhaps this is why many writers are drawn to the work of Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard. He has grasped the nettle and, along with his family and friends, has flushed something else out into the open. Of course Knausgaard is not claiming his work is fiction, but his writing feels as if it comes from the same place, or at least, the place where good fiction should come from. Honesty, truth.

In the end of course, like a lot of things, it's about balance and judgement. I heard a writer on a recent radio programme proclaim that he would never use family or friends in his work. He was evangelical in his outrage at the idea. There was a line and he would never cross it. I heard him loud and clear. I also heard the gentle chuckle of another writer on the same programme. He responded by saying that for him writing was like bicycling downhill without any brakes -- exhilarating, scary -- knowing that you, the writer, would probably arrive at the bottom safely, but that there might be a few casualties on the way down. And then he roared with laughter. He was being mischievous, deliberately provocative yes, but I believe the essence of what he said is true and given the choice, I know which of those two writers I would rather read.

Renée Knight is the author of the debut thriller Disclaimer (Harper, May 19, 2015).

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