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The Impact of Real Life Events on Writing Fiction by Paul Read

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Paul Read

Paul Read

There’s a scene towards the end of Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School where Rowland Mahler, a frustrated creative writing teacher, lectures his class a few days after the burial of his father. He posits that, if an author suffers a family tragedy during the writing of a book, that same book will most likely ‘come to ruin in the ensuing domestic anguish and muddle’.

I’d completed a couple of drafts of a novel about a young man who discovers his father’s suddenly died when my own father did exactly that.

This example of life imitating art might not have mattered, as far as the writing was concerned, if I’d been scribbling about any other subject. There would no doubt have been a justifiable break in the writing process, but I would have picked up where I left off eventually. However, given the circumstances, I became worried about what people would think, despite the statistical improbability of the book’s publication (writers can’t let that dictate their work; arrogance still has to get the words down on paper, no matter how humbling the process of rejection). This was due, in no small part, to the fact that the main character in my novel absolutely hated his father, and spent a large part of the book trying to unpick misremembered childhood incidents which inspired that hatred. It suddenly felt too raw and disrespectful to carry on, not least because there were unavoidable parallels between my own childhood and that of my central character’s. Of course there were. The boundary between fiction and fictionalisation is a thin one at the best of times and there was no hiding from the fact that I was the same age in 1989 as my main character, or that we grew up in a similar area with almost identical cultural upbringings. Unlike the YouTube-fluent children of today, my young protagonists pedalled bikes until sunset, created hand-drawn magazines and tunnelled camps into hedges. I worried, frankly, that it looked autobiographical. I worried that people would think my own kind, gentle father did all those horrible things my lying and treacherous fictional one did.

This wasn’t an original concern for me. My debut novel, The Art Teacher, featured – you guessed it – an art teacher, a job I used to perform with dubious efficacy. Given that my main character in that book punched a pupil in the face, I was keen to spell out that no incidents remotely reflected events I’d experienced, but I still worried old colleagues might find offense. Fiction is at its best when the work speaks personally to a reader, but I didn’t want to be that personal. This new novel, a family drama which went on to be called Blame, was different though. This one might have potentially offended my family.

To add verisimilitude to fiction, to make characters sound real, turns of phrase and physical descriptions by definition need to reflect those of actual walking, talking people. Yes, I invented the character of a father, but now I saw all sorts of parallels between that father and my father. Things a man of his age and education might say. An imagined response. A taste or predilection or look or interest. Some of it now seemed painfully close to the bone. I simply couldn’t use what I had written. As Muriel Spark’s creative writing tutor had warned me, big and traumatic events do interrupt the fiction writing process.

Writers are always being told to lay their work aside for as long as possible, to enable them to read their work through the eyes of another. I did so for four, if not five, years.

And I’m glad I did.

When I picked it up again, the breathing space revealed what was needed to fix certain authorial issues, how to more effectively seed plot components, and I knew I had to finish the job. The issue of my father’s honour still remained, but I worried less now. If I changed the characters as written too much, they lost their fascination. I know because I tried.  And, in a practical sense, the intervening years had also equipped me with the protocols of death and mourning in a way I couldn’t possibly have understood first time around, and that, in turn, informed the writing. The years also taught me, in a mirror of the learning of my main protagonist, that time heals. Both hearts and fiction. Just make sure you keep the grief out of the drawer, and your writing in (for as long as possible).

In the end, no one I know who knew my father even suspected for a moment that the book was based on truth. My mother even made it a respectable two-thirds of the way through (I think she baulked, in the end, at a sex scene). Obviously, I wonder what my father would have made of the novel, but then again Blame went beyond what it had been, once he died, and couldn’t have been the novel it ended up being had he still been alive. Speculating further about such a time-travel paradox would be as useless as my regret at not being able to ask him about the musicians I got into after picking them out of his own record collection once he was gone.  And I’d be lying if I said the rewriting process wasn’t a little bit cathartic too.

It still felt a little wrong to be tackling a subject that was so recently heart-breaking, even though I knew I wouldn’t have taken such a head-on approach if I’d started the novel after my father died. Maybe I looked braver than I was, or more callous, having tackled the subject before life caught up with fiction.

Either way, the book didn’t ‘come to ruin,’ as the exasperated teacher of Muriel Spark’s final novel supposed. In fact, in a way, it came to life.

(c) Paul Read

About Blame:

It is the summer of 1989 when Lucas witnesses an event that will tear his family apart. Over a decade later, his estranged father succumbs to a suspected heart attack.

Lucas shuns grief and escapes to New York with his colleague Mariana. However, a dark secret from his past threatens to re-emerge and destroy the burgeoning relationship before it has even begun.

When his father’s girlfriend fails to reappear after reporting his death, the true cause of his demise falls under scrutiny. And as the startling truth comes to light, Lucas must confront the fact that father and son may not have been so different after all.

‘Cleverly and astutely observed.’ Eben Venter

‘Shocking and wickedly funny.’ Neil Hegarty

‘A raw, startlingly honest novel about family, love and redemption.’ Matthew Norman

‘At a time when high-quality contemporary literary fiction is rarer than ever, Paul Read’s novels are a much-needed tonic.’ Matt Thorne

Order your copy online here.



About the author

Paul Read has taught at several inner city schools as an Art and English teacher, both in England and Italy, where he currently lives with his partner and two children. He received a distinction in creative writing for his MA at City University London and has been a bookseller, ice cream van driver and a voice-over artist in his time.
The Art Teacher and Blame are both published by Legend Press.

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