The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact. All the difference between the sketch and the finished work.
Today’s program focused largely on the nexus between fact and fiction (or imagination). The sessions were:
Session 1: Kenneth Binns Lecture
Geraldine Brooks set the tone – as of course she must, being the key-note speaker – by arguing the value of historical fiction. It’s just as well Inga Clendinnen wasn’t there because, like Kate Grenville, Brooks argues that there is validity in “putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes”. She argued that in historical fiction we get “the constants of the human heart” even though the “material world” might be different. She said that the things that divide us – race, gender, creed, time, place – are less significant than the things that unite – love, pity, fear, compassion, and so on. I like her view of the world! I felt like asking her whether she agreed with Inga Clendinnen’s statement in The history question: Who owns the past? (Quarterly Essay 23) that: “It is that confusion between the primarily aesthetic purpose of fiction and the primarily moral purpose of history which makes the present jostling for territory matter”!! Basically, Clendinnen disagrees that novelists can make a contribution to history through, what Grenville described as, “empathising and imaginative understanding”. I’m simplifying a bit of course but, as I understand it, this is the nub – and I fundamentally disagree with Clendinnen (much as I admire her!)
Session 2: Creating fiction from fact: History as inspiration
- Steven Conte, who spoke on his award-winning novel, The zoo-keeper’s war
- Rodney Hall
- Andrea Goldsmith
The three speakers in this session essentially continued along Brooks’ theme, arguing about the truths that can be explored through fiction, with Goldsmith going so far as to say that as well as creating fiction out of fact, novelists can create “fact from fiction”. Rodney Hall talked a bit about the process of writing historical fiction and quoted Robert Graves who once told him to “write first, research later”. Hall suggested that it is important to get the facts right because once a reader stumbles across something they don’t believe, it interrupts the reader’s ability to lose themselves in the text. Fair enough I think – but clearly there are facts that need to be “right” and facts that can be “toyed with”. Otherwise, how could Hall get away with writing a novel titled The day we had Hitler home in which Hitler comes to Australia? It seems to me then that whichever way you look at it, readers of (historical) fiction need to understand in the end that they are reading FICTION!
Session 3: Recreating a creative life
- Brian Dibble, who spoke on his biography of Elizabeth Jolley
- Mark McKenna, who spoke on his yet-to-be published biography of Australian historian Manning Clark
- Michael Morton-Evans, who spoke on his biography of Australian artist Ellis Rowan
This session focussed on the challenges of writing biography – of finding information, of making selections regarding what to include, and so on – and there were some interesting issues discussed but I’ll leave those for now.
Session 4: Writing across boundaries
- Felicity Packard, who spoke on her work on the two Underbelly television series
- Kevin Brophy, poet, essayist and teacher of creative writing
- Claire Thomas, novelist
Felicity Packard, who teaches creative writing as well as being a practising writer, made some points which clarified things nicely. She talked about working within the conventions of dramatic writing (such as Aristotle’s classic 3-part structure and the need to focus on just a couple of main questions) and the conventions of form (such as the 13-part television series). The other two speakers also referred to the issue of form. It made me realise that the writer of historical fiction works within two constraints – that of form, and that of the history they are working with. It can’t be easy!
Kevin Brophy also talked about the issue of plausibility. He said that journalism needs to do little to achieve plausibility, while fiction needs artifice to reach the same goal. And this brought me back to Geraldine Brooks’ reference in her key-note address to journalism being “the first rough draft of history”. Journalists, she said, get down the facts that are available at the time; then historians go back later and fill in the gaps using the additional records available to them after the passing of time. After all this is done, though, there are still voids – voices that are missing, such as, for example, those of the inhabitants of the plague village of Eyam upon which her novel Year of wonders is based. The historical novelist is, she said, “the filler of voids, the teller of lies” that convey “the emotional truths … the constants of the human heart”. I do wonder what Clendinnen would have said had she been there…but, in my view, today’s speakers did a good job of balancing “the exact” with their “flight[s] of mind”.
Oh, and if you would like a summary of Day 2, don’t look here. Due to other busy-ness, I only booked to attend Day 1.