‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’ – Albert Camus.
When I wrote my newest novel, This Is How We Are Human, it was the most challenging of my career. Not only had I decided to write about autism, a complex topic in itself, but the book was inspired by someone else’s story. This made it a kind of second-hand Own Voices tale. I never make things easy for myself.
Using your own experience to inspire a novel is one thing, but using someone else’s comes with a bigger responsibility, numerous challenges, and requires more time for research and extensive editing.
First of all, you should get permission. For me, that part was easy. I had lunch one day with my friend Fiona and, teary-eyed, she confided in me that she was having trouble with her twenty-year-old son Sean, who’s autistic. He desperately wanted to meet a girl, have sex, find love, all the things a young man wants. But it was proving impossible, because he found it difficult to navigate the complexities of this new adult stage in his life.
‘There’s no help out there,’ admitted Fiona. ‘Barely any reading material, nothing.’
I couldn’t stop thinking about it; about them. A week later, I told Fiona that I really wanted to write a novel about Sean’s issues. She was delighted, begged me to do so. Sean was also eager for me to explore what he was going through via fiction. I had my permission.
If you want to write about – for example – a relative’s wartime experience because you feel there is a story there, or a friend’s traumatic childhood because you think it could be a page-turner, you should check with them that they are happy for it to be used. It’s respectful and they may be keen to help you with research.
Then ask yourself why you want to write this real-life story as fiction rather than non-fiction. What are the pros and cons for each? With a biography you’ll have to stick to the facts, and make sure all incidents and dialogue are accurate and from a reliable source. With fiction, there’s more creative freedom. You can control the story more. When I wrote This Is How We Are Human I did let the facts inspire me. The story will resonate more then. I think readers can feel when something comes directly from truth; that authenticity is sharp and vivid.
I ultimately decided on turning the story into a novel because I knew that while Sean was happy for the things he had experienced to be explored, he wanted to keep his privacy. Fiona wanted to protect her son too.
The next question was should I write it? This was the thing that almost stopped me from even starting the book. Autism is a complex, tricky, diverse subject – did I have the right to explore it? Wasn’t this a topic for an Own Voices writer? Fiona and Sean assured me that they would be at my side. They would answer any questions I had and ensure that I handled the material in the right way.
I had to decide how much of the real story I would keep and how much I’d change. It needed to be different enough that it was fiction, but I wanted the essence – which was Sean’s voice and Fiona’s struggle – to shine through.
I knew the names should be altered. Fiona became Veronica and Sean became Sebastian. I changed the setting too; a city suburb became a village with a gossipy neighbour to add more drama. I also decided that Veronica should be a single parent, adding further intensity to her difficult situation.
Sean was studying bricklaying when I wrote the book. I felt this was such a lovely aspect of his real life, such a simple detail, that I wanted to keep it, making Sebastian a more rounded and realistic character. Sean’s love of swimming became an important element of the story too. Many of my books have water as a theme, so this tied in nicely with my work as a writer.
The actual writing process was very different to my usual approach to a novel. I met regularly with Fiona and Sean. We acted out certain incidents and I recorded them to use later. I didn’t tell Sean what to say, I simply began the scene with a prompt, and we went from there. Then, once written, Fiona read each chapter, offering tips, giving emotional feedback. There was a lot of back and forth, tweaking and editing, which is something I usually do when a novel is complete. Though fictional, the story grew organically from such a place of truth in this way.
When it was complete, after a full year, having taken much longer than my usual work, I was satisfied that I’d given everything I could to it, and set it aside. When I read the manuscript again six months later, it didn’t feel like my work. It was as though I was reading a story someone else had written. And this was good. I knew it meant I had let Fiona and Sean’s experience dominate the prose, leap off the page, take on a life of its own.
(c) Louise Beech
If you enjoyed this article from Louise Beech, you’re sure to love this piece by her on Writing books inspired by truth.
About This is How We Are Human:
When the mother of an autistic young man hires a call girl to make him happy, three lives collide in unexpected and moving ways … changing everything. A devastatingly beautiful, rich and thought-provoking novel that will warm and break your heart…
Sebastian James Murphy is twenty years, six months and two days old. He loves swimming, fried eggs and Billy Ocean. Sebastian is autistic. And lonely.
Veronica wants her son Sebastian to be happy … she wants the world to accept him for who he is. She is also thinking about paying a professional to give him what he desperately wants.
Violetta is a high-class escort, who steps out into the night thinking only of money. Of her nursing degree. Paying for her dad’s care. Getting through the dark.
When these three lives collide – intertwine in unexpected ways – everything changes. For everyone.
A topical and moving drama about a mother’s love for her son, about getting it wrong when we think we know what’s best, about the lengths we go to care for family … to survive … This Is How We Are Human is a searching, rich and thought-provoking novel with an emotional core that will warm and break your heart.
‘One of the best writers of her generation’ John Marrs
‘I guarantee you will not read anything like it this year … you will fall in love with this book’ Miranda Dickinson
‘Incredibly moving, gripping, and full of heart … The novel everyone will be talking about this year’ Gill Paul
Order your copy online here.