Of all the hours of advice on creating fiction I’ve sat through , the one sentence that really made me sit up was ‘Write about what you know’. But my take on it wasn’t quite what the speaker intended.
It was the end of the second term of a Creative Writing masters, and we’d got to the point in the course where we were supposed to do it – after an intense succession of seminars, talks from well-known novelists and writing exercises, we were poised to go off by ourselves to spend the subsequent eight months working on the first draft of a 60,000 word novel.
The final minutes of the class approached, and our tutor (coach, mentor) Jonathan Myerson moved on to his concluding thoughts before we all dispersed into the dark. And the words that jumped out at me were ‘Write about what you know’ – by which he meant : don’t choose a subject which means you spend the next three months doing research. Write something which you can pour out onto your keyboard without Googling anything, without any trips to the library or tours of other far away cities.
And excellent advice though that is, my immediate thought was ‘I’m going to have to write about my mother’.
By now she’d been dead for over ten years, but I was still haunted by the presence of Edith in my thoughts, consciously and unconsciously re-living moments in our lives, dwelling on painful regret about how I’d behaved towards her, or seething with rage about things she’d done. Her Mittel-European worldview had influenced my tastes and values and made me the person I was, but with each passing year I was more and more aware of how sketchy my knowledge was of her difficult early life.
The child of wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs, she had endured the war in Budapest, hiding from the Hungarian fascists and escaping first to Paris then on to Cardiff where she met my father, a refugee from Berlin. She’d been starved of affection by severe parents, which meant that traumatic wartime experiences had added insult to emotional injury and she’d started drinking in her teens. Intelligent but painfully shy she could be by turns imperious, and full of fun, desperate and domineering, and was often paralytically drunk.
In that single lucid classroom moment, I knew several things at once: that I could never invent a heroine more unique and complex, that nobody in the world understood her as I did, that I could make her utterly true to life, and that by putting her in the centre of a novel I could write about many other themes that were preoccupying me.
But at the same time, this was fiction not memoir so I had the freedom and the challenge of melding real events and people into a plot and a world that I’d have to build myself. The opening scene of the main narrative was a test of that. After a Preface flashing back to her wartime childhood, I introduce the adult Aranca for the first time, by her absence. A middle class, middle-aged woman, she’s gone missing after being thrown off a flight to Ibiza for being drunk, and has stumbled out of the airport. We find daughter Elizabeth, the narrator of the story, cruising the roads around the terminal with her father, searching desperately for the missing person they call Mutti.
All of which really did happen, but with one big difference. I wasn’t actually there. Late one weekday in the 1980s, I was about to go to bed in my flat in Camden when the phone rang. It was my father who had been scouring the roads around Birmingham International Airport looking for my mother. The years of dealing with her emotional turmoil and drunkenness had worn him down, and he was at his lowest ebb. Exhausted and desperate, he threatened to kill himself.
As ever, Edith turned up eventually, haughty as ever and angry with everybody else but not in the least apologetic. Now twenty years later, I decided this could be the ‘inciting moment’ – the incident or event that hooks the reader into the story – a crisis which perfectly illustrates the personality of its central character as well as the dynamic link to the two other key characters. But in order to bring it to life I had to take the authorial viewpoint to the centre of the action. So I put my narrator – daughter Elizabeth – in the car with her father, also moving the date forward by ten years, and swapping the airport to Cardiff for technical reasons to do with the plot.
My mother’s past haunted my childhood but she’d been unable to talk about it, apart from one magic moment of lucidity when the whole story had tumbled out. She died at sixty-nine, long before I was ready to listen to any more, so now that I wanted to put her front and centre of my novel, I had to find out for myself. I went to Budapest (sorry, Jonathan), walking around the streets that Edith must have known and trying to imagine what happened there. I ordered a pile of wartime memoirs, scouring them for accounts that may have tied in with her experience. Many of the other people who she knew at the time had also passed away, but I contacted a few friends and family who had some information. I got out family albums of photographs, and spent hours trying to see things in them I’d never seen before.
But I quickly realised that facts weren’t they key to this. Any information I gleaned had to serve the plot, not the other way round. Ultimately, it felt rather like creating a patchwork – using a whole bunch of different scraps I already had, together with things that I found, adding in some bits that I’d made myself, and ruthlessly throwing out anything that didn’t fit to shape it into a coherent whole. Many times during the writing I felt profound regret that neither of my parents were here to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, but the book I’ve written is a fiction first and foremost so their absence was also a liberation – it allowed me to be true to my own imagination.
(c) Gaby Koppel
Gaby Koppel is the author of REPARATION, published by Honno Women’s Press, 21st February.
1997 and Elizabeth’s emigre parents approach retirement in straitened circumstances. Mutti has come up with a novel solution – she is going to claim compensation from the Hungarian Government – hard enough for someone with a clear mind, but near impossible for an impulsive heavy drinker teetering towards dementia. TV journalist Elizabeth is pursuing a story of child abduction in the Hassidic community. In the wake of her father’s sudden death and her mother’s increasing obsession with wartime Hungary she struggles to keep her job and her relationship. Then she gets a phone call to say that her mother has been arrested in Budapest. Elizabeth is forced to confront the nature of motherhood, love and loss as she puts together the clues to Mutti’s past and to the fate of the lost little girl.
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