Lots of thoughts buzzing this weekend as I made preparations for my talk at the Rochester Literary Festival in ten days’ time. When I wrote While No One Was Watching I realised more than any other work, that truth is not something absolute and is defined by context. Yet we would tend to believe truth is a defined thing: a fact or belief about something known to have happened. And the lie is considered a deliberate distortion of truth. But when truth is open to interpretation and is in fact really only in the mind of the believer, and a lie is only really a lie if a deliberate act, then is there such a thing as absolute truth?
When it comes to the Kennedy assassination, the quintessential conspiracy theory, truth is perhaps even more elusive. How do you know what to believe when you have credible books by experts, equally convincing, but saying the exact opposite thing. Is what we believe weighted by how many books we read that say lone assassin versus how many say conspiracy — is that a known entity defined by how many books are actually out there and is that a figure biased by what people actually believe — or is what we think just how many books we happened to read? #random? I mean you can’t read them all? My science brain is kicking in, having worked in research so I know how many credible sources you need to say something might be probable and the errors through biased reading before you even examine the credibility of the source and author bias — I mean, even ‘factual’ books are little more than opinion a lot of the time, not absolute truth.
So I realise that there is truth in history, the known facts — Kennedy was assassinated at 12.30pm CST, on 22nd November 1963 in Dallas Texas as we rode in his motorcade, by gunshot wounds but even when I go to write from an assassin’s bullet I realise we are not moving away from absolute truth — how many assassins? The placement of the apostrophe suddenly becomes significant. So now we enter the realms of speculation and conjecture. Probability in fact!
I amassed huge amounts of information when I did my reading for While No One Was Watching. Huge. Far more than I needed, given the assassination is a catalyst for action and yes it is integral to plot but it is not an assassination novel per se. But the scientist in me has to have all the details. But truth remained elusive. The ‘factual’ books nothing more than conjecture. And while historical novelists receive critique from historians for their ‘bad version of history’; it’s a novel, by definition it’s ‘fantasy’ ; the author executing ‘creative license’ and since it means no one really knows which part is real and which is fantasy, I propose the novelist creates their own version of truth.
Stephen King claims that ‘Fiction is the truth inside the lie.’ I like that. I like that a lot. The novel is, in its purest form ‘made-up’. But, as in my novel and just about most novels you’ll read, it still needs some facets of reality to work. In my case, fact and fiction are woven together so tightly in places you can’t see the join! So the fiction writer is not so much the fantasist but the creator of a different type of truth. The truth of the story and the role of the fiction writer is to make the reader believe.
A recent psychological study said that the way we read fiction and non-fiction is different. We tend to be far more critical about non-fiction. And if we are emotionally engaged and immersed in a story — we are far more likely to believe it. And indeed the writer of the novel has failed if their reader does not believe it, right? The rules are the rules the reader has created; an un-truth in reality, look at the alternative history novels like Mark Lawson’s Idelwild, Kennedy didn’t die that day but the reader will believe that as the ‘truth’ inside the lie — right? Of course they know here he did die. But what if the fictional elements are more subtle than that, a possibility the reader hadn’t considered before that changes his view about the historical truth?
Lydia Collins in my novel is psychic and even friends who confess to initially having reservations about a ‘psychic’ narrator, said by a page or so in they found her beguiling as a narrator and believed every word. So I did what I was supposed to, right? Phew. But what about my suggestions about what really happened that day at the grassy knoll?
So there lies the crux of the question I pose at my talk, this being the case, where the factual elements and the fictional ones are so close together, will my readers also believe, if even for a fleeting moment, that there really was a little girl called Eleanor Boone who disappeared from the grassy knoll and it had to be a plot to kill Kennedy or why else is she still missing?
The question therefore is: Do fiction writers affect what we believe about history?
What do you think? What films/books/plays etc. used real events and changed what you believed about the real event? (Even if it wasn’t actually true.) I would love to know … for my talk! Please email me or reply to this post! firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a great day everyone.
Don’t forget to book your tickets! October 1st in Kent! BOOK