Fiction and Truth
The Financial Times recently published an excellent interview (done, of course, by email) with Italian writer Elana Ferrante. There are many insightful and inspiring lines in the piece, but among my favorites is this paragraph:
I grew up in a world where it seemed normal that men (fathers, brothers, boyfriends) had the right to hit you in order to correct you, to teach you how to be a woman, ultimately for your own good. Luckily today much has changed but I still think the men who can really be trusted are a minority. Maybe this is because the milieu that shaped me was backward. Or maybe (and this is what I tend to believe) it’s because male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level. And, in the real world, too many are punished, even with death, for their insubordination.
As a novelist, I also felt a shock of pleasure and recognition in this sentence from the Ferrante interview: I have not chosen an autobiographical path, nor will I choose it in the future, because I am convinced that fiction, when it works, is more charged with truth. And Ferrante is not alone in this conviction. Doris Lessing once said, “Novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavour of a time in a way formal history cannot.”
As I’m working on my new novel about Armenians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, I’m engaged in my typical obsessive research. This is my painstaking path to historical, psychological, and fictional truth. (I once wrote a short talk about my goals in this regard.) People keep asking, how is the novel going? And in truth I haven’t started writing. I’m still in that phase of research and design where I am building the world in my head. Before my characters can inhabit it, I have to fully furnish it. It also feels as though I’m working on a big, complicated jigsaw puzzle. I now have all the edges done, and am piecing together the interior. Then the writing can begin.
New York City
December 14, 2015