Last week, I watched an episode of Without a Trace. A talented artist was missing, and the investigators had to consider her artwork. She would follow people and photograph them (without their knowledge or consent) and then produce a painting of the photograph.
Some people, once they’d discovered they’d become part of her work, weren’t very happy about it.
This was something that had already been on my mind. At the risk of crossing the line myself here, when I saw last week the headline Diana’s last words: ‘Oh my God’ I found myself wondering if we really needed to know that.
I found myself sympathizing with her family, who might be understandably upset by such a headline.
Just one more thing to weigh on my mind about the whole topic of removed reality.
This was compounded by incidents that happened here last week, with the blog comments I ended up removing. I think it was something like 50+ e-mails along when my pseudo-stalker sent a message that they were unsubscribing from my gossip blog, which got me thinking.
You see, it’s hard to balance what you can and can’t say from your own life sometimes. What I posted about the events of the previous weekend was minor, and I never identified the person in question. In fact, until they popped up in the comments, the only people who would have known were Kevin and I. Any damage to their reputation was the result of their actions, not mine.
Several months ago, on my birthday in fact, a woman came on our property, got in Kevin’s face (not exactly pushing him, but poking him) and threatened us. We went to the RCMP station and made formal statements, so that if she returned we could press charges.
Is it gossip for me to share that? Or a record of facts? I lean on the latter here. It was also my fault, in a way, for the woman’s behaviour. A few years ago her dog kept getting free and ending up on our property. We’d just adopted Chinook, and he got stressed out by the presence of another dog. I brought him inside and he had diarrhea from one side of the basement to the other. The first time, that dog was in my possession for three hours, because the bylaw officer wasn’t in town that day, and my options (given by the town office) were to confine the dog, find the owner, or let it go, because it was also unregistered. Well, letting it go meant it just stayed on my property. Three hours to find the owners…
After repeated incidents, I filed a complaint with the bylaw officer. It’s not the first loose dog I’ve seen here, won’t be the last, but it was a real problem for my dog (who was adopted, and as a previously-abandoned dog this was stressful for him. We’d only had him a few weeks at the time).
The dog’s owners were charged. And they physically threatened the bylaw officer, who then returned here and advised me of the situation.
Now, this is an actual experience I had, and I don’t see anything wrong with sharing it if I choose to. It would be different if I identified the person by name or told you where they lived, but I think we’re all allowed to share our personal experiences, and when you aren’t doing it to trash someone who’s unidentified, it’s not exactly gossip.
The actual post in question from last week was 99% about other people. You know, I said once that one of the things I hadn’t thought about with books coming out was being contacted by people I’d once known, long ago. And some of it was odd and uncomfortable. I heard from someone I played with as a child, who used to live down the road, and that was awesome. It had been years. But I also heard from people who, well, were keen to tell me how far I’d fallen. That was not awesome. More like irritating.
All of this has been tossed in the cooker, simmering on the back burner, and I’ve been considering it carefully, because real cases are often inspiration for crime fiction books. I will hear something on the news, and it will get the wheels turning. I don’t think I’ve ever intended to directly represent a specific case. I might hear a story about a group of kids beating someone to death and start thinking about youth violence and hear some other stories and out of all of that I might develop an idea about teen violence.
But what about taking real cases and very clearly adapting them, or drawing off them, for the purpose of fiction?
That’s awkward. Having said that, it’s also possible to write a book and have a crime occur later that has similarities, or to be unaware of a similar case at the time of writing, and not intend to represent a real situation. One of the things people assume when they accuse someone of copying them is that the whole world pays attention to them. I mean, consider GONE BABY GONE and the Madeline McCann case. The book was written years and years ago… just a case of life imitating art, and not even that closely. However, enough for the movie to be delayed from release in the UK.
I do find myself wondering at the ethics involved in writing. Part of what we bring to the work, as authors, is our perspective, our opinions, our philosophies and how they’ve been shaped by our experiences. We understand human behaviour through our exchanges with other people, and what we observe.
I was recently asked if I agreed with the philosophy that there’s a little of the author in every character. I guess I’d have to say that there is. At the very least, there’s a little of our experiences in every character. I don’t think of a person I used to know and try to literally represent them in a book, but as a character is shaping I might remember an attribute or characteristic, or experience I had with someone, and that might be woven into the character.
For example, in WHAT BURNS WITHIN there’s a child who can recognize vehicles because he’s fascinated with cars. It’s a characteristic I lifted from a real child I knew, who played a game when driving and ID’d vehicles. Ask me, I’d say, “It’s a blue car.” He’d say, “Mustang.”
The character and that child have absolutely nothing else in common, beyond being male and being human.
Now, my musings were taken to a whole new level with the story about a photographer who was forced to photograph victims of the Khmer Rouge before they were killed. I see those photos on display, and I think it’s a good thing. It’s a record, to say that this was a person, and this person’s life was taken in such a horrific way. It’s why people read the names aloud, of those who died on 9/11 – to remember they all had names. That they weren’t just part of a number, they were an individual with hopes and dreams.
But it is different. I’m not fictionalizing it. I can’t imagine doing that.
I know that part of what many of us do in our writing is work through issues, and I certainly do that myself. I, uh, expect in the wake of WHAT BURNS WITHIN to go through another round of religious criticism.
I guess each situation becomes one we work through ourselves, and we have to ultimately be comfortable with our own choices. There are some things that have happened to me I would never want to write about. Others can feel free.
Part of me feels it’s more important to take our observations about people and insert it in the work, than to take any specific experience or story of interest to us. I’m a bit uncomfortable about the trend to take on lawyers to write legal thrillers or doctors to write medical thrillers. It is, after all, fiction. Otherwise, all police procedurals should be written by cops, men shouldn’t have female protagonists… I mean, how far do we take this? It is fiction. Despite what the conservative Christian set might have said at their book burnings JK Rowling isn’t a witch…
It isn’t that I have a problem with people changing professions and becoming writers. It’s just that sometimes, we’re too close to something to give it an objective view. Frankly, I expect there are some virgins who write romance, because they have an active fantasy life and are still enamored with the idea of romance. Believe me, I won’t be writing one myself any time soon. My reality stands in the way of that.
You know, this isn’t something that only fiction writers have to contend with. I remember the ethical debates when I was studying journalism. Even think of 9/11 and choices people made then. Pictures printed of people jumping from burning buildings, falling to their deaths…
Ultimately, whenever we write a news article, a column, a blog post, a book, we have to wrestle with all of this. Truthfully, I never felt comfortable sticking a tape recorder in someone’s face in their moment of grief, I felt I was exploiting their pain.
My own pain, my own life, is fair game.
I wonder how everyone else handles it. And I wonder if a book is too similar to a real situation if readers might have a hard time with it.