Saturday, May 06, 2006

Paul Thomas: Real-life not only spark for fictional fireworks

Double Booker Prize winner Peter Carey's new novel Theft: A Love Story has been denounced as a "misuse of literature" by his ex-wife.

She argues that because the book's protagonist, an Australian artist living in New York, has so much in common with Carey, Theft will be read as an account of their marriage and divorce and she'll go down in literary history as a vindictive, money-grabbing "alimony whore".

Carey has denied the book's about him, which I suppose leaves open the question of whether it's about her.

Novels in which real people are disguised as fictional characters are known as romans a clef, literally novels with a key. The key is the au fait reader's knowledge that enables him or her to identify the individuals on whom the characters are based.

I suspect Carey's denials will fall on deaf ears because a significant proportion of the reading public seems to think all novels are romans a clef.

In my novel Old School Tie, the main character, a feckless failed journalist, gets a freelance commission from the editor of New Nation, a successful monthly magazine that doesn't mind treading on toes.

This was in Metro's heyday and it seemed to be taken for granted that New Nation's editor Jackson Pike was Metro editor Warwick Roger in skimpy disguise.

New Nation was indeed based on Metro but it didn't follow that Jackson Pike had to be Warwick Roger. Pike wasn't based on anyone; I made him up.

In a subsequent novel Pike meets a grisly end at the hands of the people who were really responsible for the Rainbow Warrior bombing, as opposed to those two saps who ended up doing their truncated time on a Pacific atoll. Warwick's a friend of mine; if I ever did base a character on him, I certainly wouldn't kill that character off.

All novelists draw on their experience but the process of converting that experience to fiction generally involves more than simply changing the names.

Humbert Humbert's motel odyssey in Lolita was based on Vladimir Nabokov's own exploration of America; in real life, however, the author was accompanied by his wife rather than a nymphette.

And rather than simply modelling characters on real people, writers tend to borrow interesting bits and pieces of other people's experience.

I was fortunate that, at the time I was writing picaresque crime novels, several of my friends and acquaintances were considerate enough to get themselves into trouble with the law.

I worked with a guy in Toulouse who, late at night and under the influence, used a starting pistol to break up a catfight outside his apartment building.

What he didn't realise was that a senior Palestinian leader was over-nighting in the building and the French interior ministry had laid on security in the form of a crew of trained killers from some shadowy special forces outfit.

Thinking the shots meant an assassination attempt was underway, they stormed my friend's apartment and gave him a thorough working over. He was just lucky he didn't have the starting pistol in his hand when they kicked down the door. I used this incident to get the feckless failed journalist back to Auckland and on to Jackson Pike's radar.

Another acquaintance, seeking a discreet drug experience in the privacy of his Bangkok hotel room, made the mistake of buying his narcotics from a police informer and spent several weeks in the Bombat Drug Rehabilitation Centre. His ordeal in that wildly misnamed institution kickstarts my novel Inside Dope.

Then there was the friend who had the distinction of being the first person convicted of insider trading in New South Wales. His travails were fictionalised for background purposes in Final Cut.

The point is that while their (embellished) misadventures found their way into my books, they themselves didn't. These shenanigans aside, they were too normal and, when push came to shove, sensible for what I had in mind.

Closer to home, The Empty Bed was about the unravelling of a marriage. A reviewer commented that it came as no surprise to learn that Thomas' marriage had recently broken up.

This struck me as a somewhat gratuitous observation. For a start, 50 per cent of marriages in this country fail so there can't be many adults who haven't observed a marital crack-up at close quarters.

Second, the novel was conceived and embarked on almost four years before it was published, at which time my marriage was in good shape.

In fairness to the reviewer, the likes of Philip Roth and Hanif Kureishi (and now perhaps Peter Carey) have done little to discourage the perception that for writers relationship failure is just grist to the mill.

Perhaps the tendency to assume fiction must be based on actuality is a reflection of a dormant imagination. If you hardly ever use your imagination, it must be hard to get your head around the notion of someone spending their days making stuff up.

But sometimes it works the other way: with a single imaginative bound people conclude that they're the model for a character, invariably an attractive one.

As I had to ask one such Walter Mitty, the character in question is handsome, witty and charming - so where's the resemblance?


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