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Michael Sala and truthful fictions

February 9, 2012
Michael Sala The last thread bookcover

The last thread (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

Michael Sala doesn’t actually use the term “truthful fictions”. That was a character in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the river. But he could have.

Yesterday I heard Sala interviewed on ABC Radio National‘s Life Matters about his debut novel The last thread, which I reviewed last week. Presenter Natasha Mitchell commenced by mentioning the transitions, secrets and traumas that characterise Michaelis/Michael’s life in the novel. She asked why he had chosen the fictional, rather than memoir, route. He responded that he had started writing his story in first person but got swamped by emotions, and then he read J.M. Coetzee’s autobiographical novel*. He realised, he said, that he could write about the child he used to be “as if he were someone else”. (I love hearing how writers – as I also reported in my Jessica Anderson post – learn from other writers.)

This is fair enough I think. There are those who like a “memoir”, as it were, to be a “memoir”, but in our post-postmodern world in which we know that truth is a slippery beast at best, what difference does it really make? How important is it to be able to say Michael Sala did this, felt that, experienced such-and-such versus, for example, how does a child navigate abuse and how does such a child translate those experiences into functional adulthood? How important are questions of fact against exploration of these emotional “truths”?

In other words do we need to know the “facts” to understand the truths? I’m thinking now of Kate Jennings. I’ve reviewed two of her books here, her autobiographical novel, Snake, and her autobiography of sorts, Trouble: Evolution of a radical. Snake is a novella that chronicles Girlie’s life in a complicated family. We know it mirrors much of Jennings’s “real” childhood but we can’t be sure what are the facts and what are scenes created to convey her emotional truths. Trouble, described as an “unconventional autobiography”, is a collection of Jennings’ writings – journalistic articles, poems and excerpts from novels – that have been put together in such a way as to convey something about her life. We may not be able to glean from these slippery books a lot of citable “facts” but both tell us a lot about who Jennings is, about where she came from and what she believes.

All this of course begs the more fundamental question of how factual memoir is anyhow? But that is something I’ll leave – for the time being anyhow. Meanwhile, there’s a scene in Sala’s autobiographical fiction in which his mother discusses his problematical father with her sister:

“He’s a wonderful man,” Elfje says. “We’ve become great friends. Oh, he makes me laugh!”
“That’s one side of him,” Mum says.
“Yes, yes, we all have versions of events, stories to tell.”
“Stories?” Mum says. “Is that what you think they are?”
(from The lost thread, by Michael Sala)

Therein lies the rub. Whatever we read, memoir or fiction, we surely must always be aware that it is “one side” we are getting. Could it be, says she provocatively, that something labelled fiction is a more honest recognition of this fact?

* Coetzee has written more than one work of autobiographical fiction but Sala wasn’t clear which he’d read. I’m assuming he at least read the first one titled Boyhood: Scenes from a provincial life.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012 4:52 pm

    In the memoir genre, the writer is assumed to be telling a ‘true’ story, even if it is a one-sided interpretation of events. We can challenge its version of reality by reference to known facts and alternative interpretations. In a novel, the author does not have to let limitations of their own life experiences get in the way of emotional truths. We can ask if the events narraged ring true to our knowledge of the human condition and the place and time in which the story is set, but we can’t directly challenge the facts, or assume the events really occurred. (What we might challenge is a novel purporting to be a fictional version of real life experiences of the author when this proves simply not to be true.)

    • February 11, 2012 8:53 am

      Well said Judith … You’ve said very succinctly just how I see the difference. Re the last point, I guess you are referring to the Demidenko affair. I have mixed feelings about that … If, they say it’s fiction, then in a sense it shouldn’t matter whether they say it’s based on fact or not – it’s more that it’s a dishonest and cynical thing to do. The bigger worry to my mind, from the point of view of the work itself, is when someone presents fiction as memoir, which was I think the James Frey story.

  2. February 9, 2012 5:57 pm

    I’m not sure about memoir. I can’t help asking why a writer would choose this form – to heal him or herself by emptying out the story within? to set the record straight? It seems to carry a hazy authenticity, while writing an autobiography, one assumes that might be to record a long and interesting life with all it’s flaws and inaccuracies within.

    I think I’d be inclined to take elements of my life and the stories of others, and let fiction grow from that. In the end, because I personally prefer to detach from a work and let it stand on its own two feet. I understand that writing memoir could be a useful and liberating way towards this, or simply the preferred form of the writer.

    • February 11, 2012 9:00 am

      Interesting comments, Catherine. Firstly, there’s that whole issue of memoir versus autobiography. You define them the way I do, though for some I think they are interchangeable terms with people preferring the term ” memoir” these days? I think it is a more marketable term? I suppose the are those who want to write their stories but feel more comfortable in a “factual” form than a fictional? I totally understand your preference for detaching … Which is clearly what Sala wanted/needed to do. And it keeps your reader guessing!

  3. February 10, 2012 2:12 am

    You are such a provacateur! But I agree with you so I really can’t add anything 🙂

    • February 11, 2012 9:01 am

      I am to please, Stefanie! Glad you agree … Perhaps I wasn’t provocative enough!

  4. February 10, 2012 12:40 pm

    This is an interesting post in the light of the book I am currently reading, which happens to be The Late Lord Byron by Doris Langley Moore. It is regarded as the best biography of Lord Byron and is interesting in that it approaches the subject of Byron’s life as a literary detective investigation of what occurred after Byron’s death. The scholarship is formidable – she provides salient proof of the many distortions in the interpretation Byron’s life, that occurred through wrongheadedness, malice, self glorification and mercenary motives in those who were left after his death. It covers the burning of the memoirs, the plethora of inaccurate biographies and the evil machinations on the part of some personages. It’s a very convincing study and despite its formidable scholarship, is entertaining reading.

    • February 11, 2012 9:04 am

      That sounds interesting … The only book I’ve read about Byron was, as I recollect, a fairly salacious one called I think Lord Byron’s daughter. That was many many years ago … It went through the whole public library central cataloging section before it got onto the shelves! We were fast readers … Or perhaps it was a fast read!

  5. February 11, 2012 11:56 am

    That’s so true. What you’ve presented… whatever is written, or said, is only one’s perspective, and I have to agree that “something labelled fiction is a more honest recognition of this fact”. Like there’s the ‘autobiographical fiction’… the line between fact and fiction is too arbitrary and blurred. This is an interesting topic… thanks for bringing it out for discussion, WG!

    • February 11, 2012 4:49 pm

      Thanks Arti. And it’s not so much that memoir is dishonest, because we readers should read it in the light of its being “a” perspective, but that people so often discount fiction because it’s not fact. I don’t though make a big distinction between autobiographical fiction and other fiction … To me the critical issue is that it’s fiction and we readers should read it in that light regardless of what the inspiration might be.

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