Fact and Fiction

Stories do not exist to tell fact, but to convey the truth – David Shenk

Lots of people ask me  how much is true in Above All Things – truth, fact, fiction, these are a novelist’s stock in trade and the answer is more difficult than people might expect.  There are the facts of the Mallory and Irvine story, there are the facts that I have borrowed from my own life and there are truths that to me are bigger than facts.

A novelist has a very different role than an historian – but when a novelist delves into the historical the roles begin to bleed and it becomes important to ask – how accurate does a novelist have to be? That’s a question I thought about long and hard while writing Above All Things, and continue to think on as I work on my next projects – both of which owe their inspiration to public figures and historical events.  It’s a tension that fascinates me, that blurry line between fact and fiction. A slippery line to hold on to even in recounting a “real” event from “real” life as we see the moment we ask two people to recount the same event.

There are writers like Hilary Mantel, who in her novels Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies, aim to stick with that facts that are known as much as possible. “I will make up the thoughts of a man’s heart,” she has said, “but I will not make up the colour of his wallpaper.” Or Margaret Atwood who when talking about her novel Alias Grace said “when there was a solid fact, I could not alter it…but in the gaps left unfilled, I was free to invent.”

These were their personal guidelines. But there are others.

Peter Carey insists that “we don’t go to Shakespeare to find out what really happens with Richard III. We accept that someone has taken historical figures for his own particular purposes, in his own particular time.” As perhaps it can be argued Aaron Sorkin did recently with Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network .  Wayne Johnston goes even further when asked about the blurring of fact and fiction. He doesn’t draw a line at all, but rather says “you can take whatever liberties you want.”

Kate Taylor in her novel Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen rearranges time and famous cemeteries, stating that what was important to her was that the reader believe in the world that she has created. That, for me, as well, has been my guiding principle.

I have taken the historical personage of George Mallory and his friends, family and fellow explorers and used them as a jumping off point. All the research, all the desire to have facts at the tips of my fingers is in an attempt to create a world coloured and detailed and rich that the reader can immerse themselves in. No doubt, some who are familiar with the Mallory story will notice inaccuracies, changes and fictions. I hope, that even for those, these distractions will not prove too grave and that the emotional experience that the story delivers will be worth it.

For more about the balance of fact and fiction read these excellent essays by Colm ToibinWayne JohnstonPeter Carey and Kate Taylor.