Q&A on Truth, Lies and Nonfiction

The Writers’ Union of Canada Newsletter

In January and February, I did the lecture circuit as part of  the "King’s Traveling Lecture Series." I spoke to gatherings in Toronto and Ottawa on the subject of "Truth, Lies and Nonfiction." Following my Toronto lecture, I met with the editor of the Writers’ Union Newsletter, Tina Novotny, to talk more about truth, lies and nonfiction. This edited version is from the Union’s Winter/Spring 2009 Newsletter.

You teach narrative non-fiction and you’ve published both a novel and six non-fiction books. How have you seen the divide between fiction and non-fiction change over time?

Part of it is that non-fiction has become more popular with readers and book publishers over the years, so that’s how it’s shifted, and that’s led to more questioning about what non-fiction actually means. It spills over and also forces us to confront, particularly on the realist front, what does fiction mean, what is truth in fiction. All of that has created an interesting stew.

How has the evolution of writing, whichever genre you want to brand it, helped to capture younger readers?

I teach a number of courses, partly reading and partly writing, and it always amazes me how little students know. They think fiction is where you go to find interesting stories so for me one of the treats is to introduce students to non-fiction and to see their shock and surprise. It’s lovely to come into class and see all these bleary-eyed young people who were assigned a first chapter and then stayed up to finish 60 thousand words. They’ll read all night. When they’re introduced to really good narrative non-fiction, they embrace it. They discover this whole other world for entertaining, informative reading.

What is the current market for narrative non-fiction in Canada?

Narrative non-fiction in magazines was most prominent in the U.S. and it expanded to books. Today, there are two worlds when it comes to magazines. Magazines have become very specialized and very niche and it becomes a lot harder for writers to have the kind of opportunities I had when I started out. Reader interest is really quite different though. People like to read stories. They like to be taken somewhere where they meet people and experience new things. Whether it’s true or fictional doesn’t really matter. But in the business model that exists today, unfortunately, readers have become less important than advertisers.

In your lecture, you said addiction “memoirist” James Frey had originally wanted to publish A Million Little Pieces as fiction, but that publishers said it would sell better as non-fiction. Was he co-opted by the role of marketing and made to suffer the consequences?

Part of the discussion is that publishers are more interested in non-fiction because it’s easier to understand and easier to market. Particularly when you want to write a confessional book, if that’s pitched as true, then you’ve got a hook into the reader that you don’t have if it’s pitched as fiction. But once you present something as fact, you’ve stepped on a land mine if you start to make stuff up.

Is it because we need to believe in real redemption?

A great fiction writer can do the same thing. But we’re looking for a different kind of truth in fiction. When something is billed as fact, we expect it to be true and accurate. And if we find out someone has fudged the facts, then we start to question other things. It undermines the whole process. But there’s nothing wrong if someone wants to write a confessional novel, and readers will find truths in it that are equal to non-fiction, but it’s harder I think.

In one non-fiction book you’ve written, Flight 111: The Tragedy of the Swissair Crash, did you use invention to round out the picture of what happened, versus your other non-fiction books – was it a different process for you?

In my own writing there’s been an evolution. Each book I’ve learned a little more about the craft of narrative non-fiction. There are differences; in the case of the Swissair story, one of the critical problems that had to be dealt with was that the last six and a half minutes of the flight were missing, there was no black box recording because all of the electrical systems shut down. So rather than make it up, I used the same method that Sebastian Junger used with The Perfect Storm, which is to say this is what could have happened. I discovered that in most crashes, there is calm on board, instead of the panic you would expect, and it all would have been over in seconds. And in writing that, the families found it reassuring, that their loved ones wouldn’t have suffered. Even speculation can be helpful if it’s careful and measured.

b>Your novel Reparations is a fictional account of the razing of Africville in Halifax – did you turn to fiction because of the politics surrounding this episode in Canadian history?

It started with my research for the Regan book (NOT GUILTY: The Trial of Gerald Regan), involving a case of corruption in Halifax, which was very serious and well-documented but had never been presented in a legal sense anywhere, so there was no privilege attached to it. I thought initially, ‘How do I deal with this?’ There’s an important and interesting story here that I want to tell. For a while I thought I’d just wait until everybody died, because with laws being as they are, you can’t libel the dead, and when I decided to write it as fiction, I thought it would very closely follow the facts. But once I got into it, the lovely discovery for me was that the book took on a life of its own, and if you were to compare the story that I can’t tell you, and the story in Reparations, they’re not even remotely the same. Fiction gives you the liberty to go off in whatever direction the events and the characters take you to create a world. In non-fiction the challenge is to shape the story with the facts before you.

Your latest non-fiction book is Loyalists and Layabouts, a history of Shelburne, Nova Scotia between 1783 and 1792. You recount the failed dreams of its emigrant founders and you also speak of North America’s first race riots. This place and time is also featured in Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes. What’s the difference in how two writers created a picture, or tried to tell a truth, using different means?

When I researched the riots, there’s not a lot about them, there were couple of different characters who have relatively cryptic journal entries. I was stuck with that. So rather than get into the detail about the riots, I followed one of my characters who had to escape by boat because some of the rioters were threatening to hang him. When I read Lawrence Hill’s description of the world of the black Loyalists in Birchtown, just outside of Shelburne, it was a much fuller, richer picture. Which fits what I know about what the situation was like. But as a non-fiction writer I never had the material to take it that far. He had the same material but he could work with it – that’s the freedom of fiction. To take what you know is real and imagine. The joy of non-fiction writing is being able to assure your readers that everything is true and accurate. You can create a complex picture without violating the facts. As long as the stories are well told, there should be an audience for both.

So what’s next for you, now that you’re a writer of both the real and the imagined?

I’d like to do two different books on the same subject: Cuba on the verge of its transformation. You’ve got Castro about to disappear off the stage, you’ve got a new American president who presumably will loosen the embargo and the blockade, and you have a Cuban population that is caught between pride in their country and its recent history but also wanting the things they see because of the tourist economy. There is a non-fiction narrative about that, but I have another story that’s really a love story, that I couldn’t tell as non-fiction, so I have two projects, both based on the same basic set of facts, but approached in a different way.

That’s the best of both worlds.

The non-fiction is the underpinning and the foreground for the novel. Besides which, I get to spend lots of time in the warm climate of Cuba for my research!

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair at The University of King’s College and recently presented the 2009 Faculty Lecture Tour in Toronto.