Truth in Fiction

Robert Gulliver Cover pic

In his unpublished novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the writer Michael K Freundt* tackles this notion of truth in fiction.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?’

‘Yes. 4378.’ 

‘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 and it’s sequel Veronica Tries to be Good Again are available through iBooks via the links. Also in iBooks is a short story collection My Brother, My Love & Other Stories                                    He lives in Bali with his husband. 

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman 

Elliot Perlman pic
Australian writer, Elliot Perlman

Extraordinary. This is a word that we use too much. In fact, we use it so much that we have elided its pronunciation from ek-stra-OR-din-ai- ree to ek-STROR-din-ree; four syllables from the original six. English-speakers do this because, fundamentally, English speakers are lazy; and laziness elicits contractions. Therefore, the fact that this word has had two syllables, a third of it, elided from its pronunciation proves that we use this word a lot. I want to use this word, not only in its original six-syllable pronunciation but in its original compound word construction, before it became a word: its beginnings when the prefix ‘extra’, meaning ‘outside’ was joined to the word ‘ordinary’ meaning ‘normal’: outside normal, or not normal.

This is an extra-ordinary novel.

Imagine three novels of personal discovery by characters of varying nationalities, creeds, and circumstances – Polish, Australian, American, Jewish, African American, prisoner, ex-prisoner, displaced person, kidnapped child, holocaust survivor, trapped husband, abandoned wife, ghetto dweller, historian, oven-stoker, psychologist, and soldier  – written by a writer who is fundamentally obsessed with what connects one person to another regardless of time, place, and belief; and who advocates that a connection, whether it be via six or thirty six degrees of separation is still a connection; who then knits them together as one. This ‘knitting together’ is not so much a writer’s skill; it’s more an editor’s, but the idea of it, the concept certainly is Perlman’s.

But there’s more to a book that its contents. One of the other things a book is, is its narrator: who tells it? Usually, but not always, a novel’s narrator is a third-person, unnamed, genderless voice that is all-seeing, all-knowing, god-like. In The Street Sweeper Perlman proves this is all undoubtedly true. It takes Adam Zignelik, a major character, 25 pages to wake up. Don’t think this is indulgent or dull: far from it. In the moment this happens in real time we learn, via the Herculean and history-obsessed narrator, about Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black boy from Chicago, who, in 1955, while travelling to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, is tortured and murdered for sassing a white woman; about what happened at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957 to a fifteen year old black girl, Elizabeth Eckford; about the reasons, racism,  and inconsistencies of the American Civil War, 1861 -1865; about what happened at the Coloured Orphan Asylum on the corner of 43rd Street and 5th Avenue in New York in the summer of 1863; about who is sleeping next to him as he’s waking, Diana; and even what will happen to her a couple of weeks after Adam wakes crying. Perlman doesn’t allow his narrator to tell you what happened, he shows you what happened; he takes you there. This is fresh history. But history that Adam Zigalick doesn’t know anything about, but could.

History is what excites Perlman and he explodes the idea that history is only a story that you’re not in.

            Listen carefully. A young man – a very young man – lived in a house with his elderly father whom he loved very much. His father had grown unwell to the point of being bed-ridden. The young man shared the responsibility of taking care of the ailing father both with his mother and with a long-time and loyal servant of the family. . . He took pleasure in this even though, being a serious student at the time, he might have been forgiven for begrudging time away from studying in furtherance of his own future. It was all the more remarkable given the added stresses on him as a newly married man living upstairs in the family home with his even younger pregnant wife. . . Is any of this true? How can you know? How can you possibly know? I haven’t given you enough information even to ask better, more sensible, more meaningful questions. The better question is “Having heard what I told you about the young man, is it likely to be true?” Let me suggest these categories: true, untrue, likely to be true, unlikely to be true, and, there isn’t enough known to answer likely or unlikely.

His novelistic techniques are simple but effective. To flavour the testimony of a holocaust survivor, a Pole and obviously not a native-English speaker, he does as little as necessary, a little word-choice ‘mistake’:

I fell asleep in their second floor what was not yet finished,’ Mr Mandelbrot continued. ‘The cold come in through the missing windows but I was exhausted and fell asleep very quickly. The next thing what I knew was the SA man standing over me in the dark.

The use of ‘what’ not ‘that’ gives Mr Mandlebrot’s voice all the foreignness it needs.

Perlman has Adam discuss things in his head, not with himself, but with Diane, his partner who loves him but who he forced out of his life through his own inadequacies, fears, and selfishness: dialogue is far more interesting to read than blank prose:

He opened the mirror cupboard and found the comb that Diane had left still entwined with strands of her hair and he wondered how he became the man who held that comb.

            ‘So that’s it, is it?’ Diane whispered to him in the middle of the night.

            ‘I looked everywhere I could, did everything I could do . . . everything I could think of.’

            ‘Check them, Adam.’

            ‘Will you forgive me . . . for what I’ve done  . . . to us?’

            ‘Sweetheart, check your notes.’

            Adam went to his desk as he’d heard her direct him to do and started flicking through the pages.’

These ‘conversations’ not only keep the reader rooting for Diane and Adam’s possible reconciliation (no spoilers here) but also furthers the plot; not usual for thought bubbles.

Sensitive men, she had always felt, were intimidated by her looks, thinking that rejection was so likely that, as rich as the prize might be, they were too flawed, too certain to fail, to do anything but admire from a distance. (And then from the narrator, but in light of what this character had then thought, a little use of free indirect discourse) Men like these pursued women just slightly prettier than plain and then married whichever of them they were next to when suddenly the music stopped to announce that graduate school was over.

            Immaculate, complex sentences with unusually expressed insight topped with a little poetry.  This is classic Perlman.

Ultimately this book is about history and, more specifically, truth even in the little things:

It was the honey-skinned woman with jet-black straight hair, the student who no longer attended his ‘What is History?’ lectures; the one who had correctly guessed Gandhi. True? It was unlikely to be true but beneath the palm fronds as the past and the present wilted, beneath the candlelight where shadows snuff the sidle of evening, beneath the tropical motifs, thatch-clad walls and thud of the speakers there to help drown out people’s private internal, soon-to-be-publicly-misunderstood celebration of themselves, it was true.  

There are no walk-ons in this story: a passing student has a goal, purpose, a history.

Elliot Perlman is a Melbourne barrister but has published three novels, Three Dollars (1998) which won the Age Book of the Year, and was adapted for film in 2005; his second novel Seven Types of Ambiguity (2004) was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award and the television adaptation will screen in Australia in 2017; and his third, The Street Sweeper (2011) was long-listed for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award. His short story collection The Reasons I won’t be Coming came out in 1999; the title story won the Age Short Story Award in 1994.

The Street Sweeper tells the stories, linked web-like through time and place, of a young African American man, Lamont Williams, and Adam Zignelik, a Jewish Australian historian, both living in Chicago and both trying to get their lives back on track: Lamont, after an unjust 6-year stint in prison, and Adam after his personal relationship and career starts to unravel.

Warning! The scenes set in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 are harrowing, detailed, vivid, and extremely disturbing. However, this book is also about memory, testimony, and what should not be forgotten; skipping these scenes is possible but not in the spirit of the work.

And the title? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

This is enlightening, intriguing, sometimes horrifying, but satisfying reading. Highly recommended.

You can get the hardback, paperback, and eBook editions here.



The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

The Scottich writer Andrew O'Hagan
The Scottich writer Andrew O’Hagan
“There’s an art to telling the truth.”

My first instinct was to say that The Illuminations, O’Hagan’s latest novel, is about the past; but then every novel is about the past, even one written in the present since the actual present is only on the page you’re on. It is more accurate to say that The Illuminations is about the little lies of the past that make the present bearable.

The two main characters are Anne, a grandmother sinking slowly into dementia, but once a well known pioneeing documentary photographer with an inner artistic life that her family only vaguely acknowledges, and her grandson Luke, a Captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers fighting the dirty war in Afghanistan. He witnesses a horror that he could’ve prevented if it were not for his weak, and tormented commander. On his return to Britain he takes Anne on a trip to Blackpool to see the famous light show at the end of summer, the Illuminations, hoping she will remember more about the romance she had there with Luke’s grandfather, the photographs she took, and the reason that his family is like it is. He craves enlightenment to make sense of the past which he can only vaguely see: the facts that don’t add up; the questions unanswered.

I first discovered O’Hagan via his 2006 novel Be Near Me which turns on a moral mistake of the protagonist, a Catholic priest, Father Anderton. When he is finally brought to account for his ‘sin’ by his religious  superiors, the answer to the question he is asked only explains half the sin; and he is faced with a truely moral dilemma: should he simply answer the question knowing that the answer will satisfy his superiors and that will be the end of it, or should he, given the vows to his God, confess to ‘all’ the sin, and therefore end his vocation? The ‘action’ of the book is in the mind of Father Anderton, small compared to most novelistic plots, but I remember the feeling of the monumental challenge the man is asked to face; this is a ‘big’ story, or O’Hagan made it seem so.

The Illuminations isn’t quite as successful although the awkward scenes of a family get-together where the past and the present, old ideas and new, clash and bump are handled with insight and cringing recognition. O’Hagan is a master of the minutiae of the undercurrents and whirlpools that swirl beneath a family’s, and any personal, exterior. He also successfully describes that ellusive but sometimes debilitating feeling parents have of loving the family to visit but joyous when they leave.

O’Hagan is a well respected writer and his early novel, Our Fathers (1999) won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and it was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2001) as well as the Man-Booker Prize for Fiction (1999).

However his most intriguing work is a lengthy article in the London Review of Books, Ghosting Julian Assange in March 2014 which tells the fascinating story of the time he spent shadowing the Wikileaks founder with the contracted intention of ghosting an ‘autobiography’ of the man. I should explain that the book, not yet written, had already been bought by Canongate for £600,000 and sold-on to a range of big publishing houses including Knopf of New York. The book never happened but a lot of legal battles did; the article explains why, and at the same time gives a detailed picture of Assange, his behaviour: paranoid and, to some degree, his motivation: selfish. You can find the article at which also includes an audio file of O’Hagan speaking about Assange. 

He is also a playwright and his latest work for the stage is a doco/drama, Enquirer, staged by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2012 that deals with the machinations of the British press.

O’Hagan is a wonderful writer and there is a lot to enjoy in The Illuminations. I recommend it and Be Near Me as well.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

The American writer Dave Eggers
The American writer Dave Eggers

The relationship between truth and fiction is, and always will be, complicated and never more so than in the reading of this book: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. It was published in 2009 to great acclaim, won many prizes and is a non-fiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s battle with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I had heard of Dave Eggers but had never read any of his work. He is a remarkable achiever who sprang onto the literary landscape in 2000 with a memoir with the hubritic title, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

First of all it is a handsome and well-made book and heavy for its size; expensive paper perhaps. I was immediately impressed by the simple but effective language that painted a loving and respectful relationship between Zeitoun and his American, but Islamic, wife Kathy and their four children, while building the suspense of Katrina bearing down on them. The couple ran a busy and successful painting and maintenance business in New Orleans, but also had several rental properties that they managed. Everyone worked very hard. Zeitoun, originaly from coastal Syria, was a hard-worker, a loving husband, doting father, a devout Muslim, with a strong sense of community and duty to his neighbours. Here was the epitomic hero.

As the hurricane approached Kathy and the kids left for relatives further inland in Baton Rouge leaving Zeitoun to look after the house and their other properties. The storm comes and goes and Zeitoun wonders, is that all there is? No, the mighty storm was not the problem, but the rising water was. He moves everything he can to the second floor and when the water stops rising he jumps in his second-hand canoe and paddles around the city rescuing trapped people and neglected dogs. I knew from the back cover that he would be arrested for suspected looting and imprisoned in a cage but I hadn’t got that far yet.

Then on Thursday evening I went to meet some friends for dinner in a local restaurant. I was the first to arrive and so while I was waiting I Googled Zeitoun and Eggers; I was curious about what had happened to our real-life hero, Zeitoun, and his family. I wish I hadn’t.

Much has been written and reported about Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy since this book was published in 2009. The pressures of fame that the successful book generated, harrassment by the media, and not to forget the trauma of Hurricane Katrina herself all took their toll. Kathy Zeitoun accused her husband of repeated physical abuse, the first time, reportably, but witnessed, with a tyre-lever, and they were divorsed in February 2012. Abdulrahmin was then arrested on charges of attempting to murder his ex-wife and for paying a hit-man to do the deed. Both charges were dismissed in July 2013 by the judge who sided with the defense team who maintained that the prosecution pursued the case because of Zeitoun’s growing fame. In response to his aquittal Kathy Zeitoun said “I was shocked. I am now in fear of my life. I do believe he is going to attack me again, with all my heart.”

Knowing this informaiton before finishing reading the book changed the way I felt about it. This worried me. The publishers and Eggers himself have gone to great lengths to establish the story as not just non-fiction but as fact even though Eggers writes the book as a novel: he describes the thoughts in his character’s heads and conversation, in direct speech, between Zeitoun and Kathy in the privacy of their bed. These are the traits of fiction. Did Zeitoun leave out all the ‘bad’ stuff during his extensive interviews with Eggers? Kathy Zeitoun thinks so; or did Eggers only choose what he wanted to use for his narrative purposes? This is also a skill needed to write fiction.

I had to change my attitude about the book and treat it, think about it, as a novel; that was easy because it’s written like a novel, but changing the idea of the book from non-fiction to fiction wasn’t so easy. When talking about the frelationship between truth and fiction I’ve always used the line that

‘fiction is always about truth but, to make it clear, we have to lie about it a little’.

Dave Eggers has run away, literally, from reporters who want to ask him questions about the veracity of his book and if you google “Zeitoun + Eggers”, or similar, information runs out in late 2013 after Zeitoun was aquitted of the charges brought against him.

The hurricane itself certainly had a devastating effect on the people of New Orleans but for the Zeitoun family, did being the subject of Egger’s book bring its own misery and add to the family’s woes? Or were there already chinks in the relationship before Eggers came along? Chinks that he chose to ignore.

Non-fiction is about facts, truth is about emotion. The fiction may be set on a fictional planet or place but the interplay between the emotions and feelings of the fictional characters are about truth. I believe that the physical action of the story is true: the actual effect of Katrina on the people and the city of New Orleans, but I had to accept that the relationship between the characters, although they themselves existed, was not true, but manufactured, compiled, and organised by Eggers for his own novelistic purposes. This is what novelists do.

I went back to the book, I was only 50 pages in, but I was surprised to realise that I was no longer interested. I didn’t care anymore. The book was trying to be something it wasn’t. For years I’ve been telling people that if you’re not enjoying a book, stop and read something else, even though the urge to finish something you’ve started is very strong. I usually give in to this urge, but with this book, I didn’t. I stopped. Besides I had just found in my local bookshop a book that I’ve been longing for. This bookshop has a swap policy so I swapped my copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, the 2013 Man-Booker winner, ironically a book I also didn’t enjoy, but finished, for  Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: a fictional biography of E.M. Forster. Ha! Yet another permutation of fiction and truth.

All writing is fiction. The only thing true about it is its physicality: little black marks on a white background.