Monday, October 29, 2007

Removed Reality – Can You Handle The Truth?

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.


Brian Lindenmuth said...

But what about taking real cases and very clearly adapting them, or drawing off them, for the purpose of fiction?

You just described every episode of Law & Order...ever

Sandra Ruttan said...

I know. Well, maybe not every episode...

But it does raise a question. Some people take extreme offense to it. Every writer has to consider what they're comfortable with. Using the Tri-Cities in the GVA, as I do, the Pickton murder investigation would be prime fodder, but I find myself not at all interested in touching it. Yes, his farm is in Port Coquitlam (aka PoCo, with is one of the three cities that form the Tri-Cities). I don't know... it feels a bit too close to me, and insensitive.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Perhaps that raises the question of whether I'd feel the same if I relocated the crimes to another city.

Then again, Edmonton has a missing women problem of its own, with no arrest yet...

Graham Powell said...

I rip off my own life all the time, but mostly in small ways. Little bits of conversation, places that I'll drive by and that, "Wow, what a cool spot for a murder!"

But I have not seen a real-life crime that I thought would make a good story. Either it wouldn't be interesting enough, or the similarities would be too obvious.

Pepper Smith said...

Sometimes the real-life crimes, when put into fiction, just feel exploitative. I guess it just depends on how well they're disguised. CSI did an episode where one of the victims was a man who had been hit by a car and left stuck in the windshield, where he bled to death. It was so soon after a similar real-life incident that I couldn't help sitting there rolling my eyes about it. It just felt terribly unoriginal.

I have a character who is a mystery writer, who models characters in her stories to some degree after people she knows. I think, to some degree, you can get away with it. I think about James Herriot, who said that the only person who ever recognized herself in his stories was the lady Mrs. Pumfrey was based on. Most people don't see themselves the way others see them.

That said, you also have to be careful, because if you draw a character too close to the real person, someone will recognize them. They'll also assume any bad characteristics you give the character are what you really think of the real person, or that you're accusing them of the bad actions of the character, and folks are awfully quick to sue these days.

And then there are the ones you've never met who are certain you were writing about them...

Sigh. Remind me again why any of us thought this was a good business to get into?

Anonymous said...

When it comes to true-life crime fiction, I think a bit of distance works wonders. Would we begrudge ourselves The Black Dahlia? And one of the best crime/horror novels I've read is The Girl Next Door, which I wrote about here.

To be clear about the McCann issue, the reason we can't watch Gone Baby Gone in the UK is not because the movie might exploit her disappearance; it's because the media is so busy exploiting her itself that its jaws would snap at any outside interference. 20,000 people go missing in the UK every year; the average missing persons' charity runs on an annual budget less than the fund to find one single girl. Make of that what you will.

There is a real question here that bothers me as a crime writer: what are we doing? Because you hear so much about the value of our stories, and what we 'have to say' about real-life violence, and so on. So why would be bothered if a real-life case reflects our writing? Surely, we've got things to say that people need to hear? We've got insight.

And it bothers me because I'm not sure we have. We want to be taken on literary terms, but where there might be a Roth or a DeLillo - even an Amis - who's unafraid to tackle confrontational themes in their fiction, where's the crime equivalent? Where's the guy or girl who can stick out their novel in the midst of media furore and say "fuck you, I'm not exploiting this, you are, and I've got interesting things to say"? Can you think of a single mainstream crime author, and - if not - what does that say about our genre?

Playing devil's advocate, of course, but I do wonder. If we're not exploiting real-life tragedy to make entertainment, why would be ashamed of what we do?

John McFetridge said...

I haven't read Gone Baby Gone (or seen the movie), but a few years ago Richard Price - not known as a crime writer, even though pretty much all his books involve crime - wrote a book called Freedomland tha mirrored pretty closely the Susan Smith case in South Caroline; woman's kids are missing and she ends up suspect.

I think Richard Price wrote a terrific novel that dealt with a lot of issues and presented some very real characters. He changed the setting to New Jersey but kept the mother poor and white and kept her claim that a black man carjacked her. Clearly that case was his starting point.

But then, "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," as Sandra says. I'd say that's all we bring. But it's a lot.

Law and Order is a good example because there are so many episodes, all drawn from real-life cases and they pretty much cover the whole range from lousy exploitation to thoughtful well-done. You could use the show to teach a course on what to do and what not to do.

Because so much news is covered so superficially in tiny, sound-bite sized chunks we need novels to tell whole stories, to get past "the facts" and into the people.

Some of those novels will be cheap exploitation. That's the price we pay for the good ones.

(funny, as I'm typing this my wife is watching "Heroes" on TV and when it comes back from commercial it says, "This show contains mature subject matter," and I think, "If only.")

Josephine Damian said...

Re: Diana - I saw an interview on TV with a doctor who was driving in the tunnel that night. He claims to be the first to have gotten to her right after the crash. He said she was knocked out, her face was untroubled - "at peace" - and that she did not ever speak. I doubt he would have left her side before the medics showed up.

So when I recently heard these other two people who claimed to have been the first to get to her and that she said, Oh my God - I question their credibility.

Re: the online stalker - have you considered screening posts? More work, yes, but it takes away an automatic public platform for the trolls.

Re: animal disputes. I've been down that road myself and have the police reports to prove it. There's a ton of reasons to use a pen name, and you've touched on several good ones in your post.

I wanted to give a good smack on the head to the nit wit who said you'd fallen far! Sandra, don't let the bastards get you down!