Column for April 9, 2006

The truth is it’s fiction… but true

“This is a work of fiction. Any similarities between the events and characters depicted herein

and actual events or persons, living or deceased, are purely coincidental.”

The most interesting revelation of my first full, official week as a published novelist is the number of people who seem to believe my fiction is actually nonfiction, and are convinced that this or that character in Reparations must be this or that real person, living or deceased. (Which is an interesting twist on the number of people over the years who have dismissed my actual nonfiction as nothing more than a figment of my imagination… but that’s another column for another day.)

In his review of the book in the Halifax Herald last weekend, for example, Robert Martin noted that the novel is peopled with a cast of sometimes sleazy local lawyers, politicians and journalists. “Current members of all these groups,” he suggested, “will think they recognize colleagues in these pages, often in unflattering and sometimes illegal poses. I certainly recognized some of those booze-fueled reprobates of old.”

I’m flattered… I think.

At first blush, there may seem to be reasonable and probable grounds for a reader to make those sort of assumptions.

The novel’s story is set against the backdrop of real-life Nova Scotia in the sixties and seventies, as well as today. It includes fictionalized depictions of the all-too-real destruction of Africville during the sixties. There’s a passing reference to Donald Marshall, Jr.’s wrongful murder conviction, even a modern-day scene set in the Economy Shoe Shop bar.

The arc of the Seamus O’Sullivan provincial government of the novel — elected in 1970, re-elected in 1974, defeated in 1978 — neatly tracks the real-life Liberal administration of Gerald Regan, including vague references to some of the issues (electricity rates) and scandals (the Mercator cruise ship fiasco) that ultimately brought it down.

And truth to tell — I always do, except when I don’t — I’ve created many of the characters that inhabit the novel by borrowing, plucking and occasionally stealing outright characteristics, tics, quirks, events and mannerisms from a whole bunch of different real people I’ve encountered over my lifetime.

But then, of course, I mixed, tossed, scrambled, stirred and shook all that with other stuff, and stuff from my imagination, and stuff from who-knows-where-or-how-it-got-there, and the end result is… well, fiction.

This is definitely new turf for me. I’ve been a journalist for more than 35 years, I’ve taught it for close to 25 and I’ve spent a good chunk of that time defending myself and other journalists against accusations that we make stuff up just to sell papers or attract viewers.

When I decided I wanted to write this story as a novel, in fact, I had to unlearn a lot of what I’d spent a career figuring out. For starters, facts… the real ones, I realized, don’t matter nearly as much as they do to a journalist. In the beginning, I spent way too much time trying to shape my story to fit the facts, for example, rather than letting the facts fit my story. And I fretted way too much over the reality that the court case that is at the heart of the novel simply wouldn’t, in real life, unfold as I described it.

Somewhere along the line, it finally dawned on me — I can be a little slow sometimes — that it didn’t have to be true to life in order to be true to the story. That’s why they call it fiction, stupid. For me as a writer, this was a liberating revelation.

So the fact is it’s fiction.

But, I hope, true too.

I remember interviewing the late Canadian writer W. O. Mitchell at a time when I was way too young to understand what he was really saying. “The novel,” he explained to me, “is made up of a whole lot of little truths that go to make up the Big Lie that is fiction.

“But,” he added after I had a chance to digest that, “the real goal of the fiction writer is to write this Big Lie so that it conveys a Larger Truth.”

I won’t pretend I’ve accomplished that with Reparations. But my goal — aside from simply trying to tell an interesting story in a readable way, of course — was to assemble all those little truths of quirks and events into bigger lies of fiction in order to covey a larger truth about an important, transforming time and place in our recent history… a fiction that’s as true as I can make it.

Stephen Kimber will be reading from his novel Reparations at the Lord Nelson Hotel today at 2:30 p.m. as part of the Halifax International Writers’ Festival.

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