In his unpublished novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the writer Michael K Freundt* tackles this notion of truth in fiction. His protagonist, a young writer, Robert Gulliver, takes over his mother’s work after she dies suddenly. Edith McGowan was a novelist, an agoraphobic, and not a very good wife and mother who only lived for the books she wrote, published, and sold on-line: a series of novels about a free-lance psychologist called Veronica.
Up until her death Robert had been helping her with her research and increasingly writing scenes and even full chapters; so much so that when she died it didn’t take much for him to take over her work completely. However, his intelligence and precociousness stimulated his marketing prowess and turned him into a social media star and eventually into the mainstream when a paper-book publisher picked him up. The books were moderately successful but then he craftily manoeuvred himself into a literary festival where his good-looks, charm, and audacity wowed the audience. It was at this festival, the inaugural Tathra Literary Weekend, that the following interview, in front of a live audience, took place with Emmy Mueller, an arts administrator and partner of the Festival’s director, Michelle Day.
Emmy finally gets around to Robert’s mother’s death.
‘I read in a newspaper report, Robert, you emailed it to me I think, that she died suddenly at her keyboard. She fell forward and her head typed hundreds of thousands of pages of the letter ‘t’ before you found her and lifted her off!’
‘Well, not quite like that.’
‘But hundreds and thousands of pages of the letter ’t’? That’s amazing!’
‘Actually, it was only 4378 pages.
‘But, I’m sure I read hundreds and thousands …’
‘No, it was 4378 pages. The exaggerated figure was, to be real, from a tabloid report.’
‘You sent me fake news then.’
‘You could say that.’
‘But with the letter ’t’.’
Robert adopts a well-rehearsed naughty boy expression, smirks, and says, ‘Actually, no.’
‘Another bit of fake news?’
‘No. I changed it to the letter ’t’.’
‘Sorry?’ Emmy Mueller had been annoyed at Robert’s email; taking it as a bit of author interference in her moderating role but the thousands of pages, still being created before Robert lifted his mother’s head off the keyboard, appealed to her sense of the theatrical, but she wasn’t prepared for this little admission.
‘I changed it to the letter ’t’,’ repeats Robert with a little uncomfortable burr in his brain, as if his little plan isn’t going to work.
‘So, if the letter isn’t true, what about the pages?’
‘Oh, there were thousands of pages.’
‘Over four thousand pages?’
‘But not with the letter ’t’.’
‘You changed it.’
‘You altered the facts. You lied to the police.’
‘No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t lie to the police. They could see the pages and what was written on them.’
‘So when did you lie?’
‘When I was interviewed a few days later.’
‘Why did you lie to the Press?’
‘So it would be believed.’
‘Robert, you’re going to have to explain that to us.’
‘The facts are not believable.’
‘You mean, the truth is not believable?’
‘ … Yes.’
‘What is the truth?’
‘The number of pages is the truth…’
‘But the letter that took up thousands of pages is not?’
‘No. That’s right. The letter is not.’
Suddenly a frustrated voice comes from the audience: ‘What was the bloody letter?’
After the laughter dies down he says, ‘The letter ‘y’ – next to the letter ’t’; so it could’ve quite easily have been the letter ’t’.’
‘But it wasn’t.’
‘No. It was the letter ‘y’.’
‘What is so unbelievable about the letter y?’
‘Well, think about it. If you read the truth: the e-novelist, Edith McGowan died, suddenly, inexplicably at her computer. She was discovered face down on her keyboard where her head had typed 4378 pages, and counting, of a single letter y, why why why why why why why…. Would you have believed it? I think your reaction would’ve been, ‘Oh, come on!’ Doesn’t it sound … a bit manufactured? Why did I die? Why why why! It has a false ring about it. You see? Like it was made up to be so ‘neat’ so ‘ironic’, so … not-real.’
‘So you changed it.’
‘Yes. I changed it to make it believable. I only changed one letter. In my report to the police, everything is true. But I needed to change that letter for the public. I needed to fictionalise it in order for the whole story to be taken as truth. Which it is. 99.9999% is true. And that’s what I love about fiction: it has the undeniable capacity of creating the believable, revealing the believable, and re-making the truth.’
‘The old, Truth is stranger than fiction, cliche?’
‘No. Fiction can also be more believable. And that’s what writers do: we take something made up and make your brain believe it. So much so that you laugh, cry, feel annoyed, or angry at what you really know is a made up story. Humans can do this, and we’re the only animal on the planet that can, and we do this because we have imagination. You can believe in it and not believe in it at the same time – the suspension of disbelief trick – you know you’re sitting in your living room in your reading chair by the window but your imagination is not with your body but with the story. Multi-tasking at its best.’
It’s not that truth is stranger than fiction, it’s that truth, in a novel, can be weaker than fiction; and this is possible because from a very young age we are lied to by our parents and by the society in which we live: told stories, usually for educational, sociological, and disciplinary reasons, good reasons it could be argued, but lies none-the-less. The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Boogie Man, god, growing pains, the trustworthy priest, the helpful policeman, the benevolent government, the winning lottery, the best price, the fool-proof diet … I’m sure you could add a few more. We are so used to this duality that sometimes they get confused and people can become to rely on the lie because it’s all that they know and it’s comforting to believe in something, even if it’s not true.
Our imagination, the sole thing that makes us human, has it’s own dark side.
* Michael K Freundt is an Australian writer. His first novel How to be a Good Veronica https://books.apple.com/au/book/how-to-be-a-good-veronica/id1179204673 and it’s sequel Veronica Tries to be Good Again https://books.apple.com/au/book/veronica-tries-to-be-good-again/id1229567719 are available through iBooks via the links. Also in iBooks is a short story collection My Brother, My Love & Other Stories https://books.apple.com/au/book/my-brother-my-love/id1171638404 He lives in Bali with his husband.