By Andrew Tibbetts
On Sunday, I went to a panel discussion of three writers, Diane Ackerman, Jacob Arjouni and Ian Holding. They were ostensibly there to talk about narrative structure, but none of the three was very theoretically-minded and instead they talked about ‘truth’. Is non-fiction more ‘true’ than fiction? Is fiction a different, perhaps superior, kind of ‘truth’? Is there such a thing as ‘truth’ beyond ‘personal truth’? Each of the three authors is dealing with subject matter that is the stuff of history books- the second world war, the conflict in Yugoslavia, and the violence around land reclamation in Zimbabwe. Diane Ackerman wrote a non-fiction novel- ie, a true story told like a novel, paced into scenes with characters, etc…. Ian Holding wrote a literary novel that is set in an unnamed African country but which distils many of the true stories of real people from the author’s experience. Jacob Arjouni wrote a crime novel set in his city of Frankfurt, Germany. What initially looked liked like a rather awkward lumping together of three disparate writers, gave way to a thrilling metaphysics on getting from inspiration to art. I left thinking: authors don’t select their inspiration; the inspiration selects them. And I also left thinking: authors don’t select their method of telling, either; they stumble across it. But I also left wondering: being selected by your subject and your style sounds fairly passive, right? So why do I get the feeling of hard work and hard-earned accomplishment?
Today I thought up an answer: Because the hard work is in making yourself available, doing what needs to be done so that when the inspiration and the method arrive they can work through you. Ian Holding talked about resisting his book for a long time, about not wanting to write it. Whatever he had to work out internally cost him something, but I’m glad that in the end he let it happen.
Read: Unfeeling by Ian Holding, Kismet by Jacob Arjouni and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.