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To Thine Own Self Be True: how autobiographical can a novel be?

‘What’s it about?’ That is the first question a person will ask when you tell them that you’re writing a novel. Of course, many writers choose to keep their work secret, and I can understand why (there’s no point in well-meaning friends planning your book launch when it feels like a decade will pass before you finish the damn thing!) But I can’t be coy when a quick google search leads straight to my writing-a-novel blog, so I’m doing my best to be bold if Pentimenti comes up in conversation. And if it does, people tend to ask the following question:

‘What’s it about?’

What’s it all about, Alfie? Well, Pentimenti is a novel about art, animals and a woman learning to live life on her own terms.

This tends to be followed by a minute’s silence.

Afterwards, when my friend/colleague/taxi driver/borrow-my-doggy has recovered from their excitement, they often go on to ask question number two:

‘Am I in it?’

(The exception to this is when your friend is a fellow writer. They don’t ask ‘am I in it?’ - they ask ‘have you got a publisher?’ Either way, perhaps I should simply get a tee shirt with the word NO printed on it.)

We are often told to write what we know, and this week I’ve been considering exactly where the balance lies between fiction and autobiography. The two genres are often presented as mutually exclusive categories: occupying different shelves in bookshops and libraries, and even different classes at school and university. And yet for both the novice writer and some of the world’s greatest storytellers, the reality is that the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction are blurred to say the least. And it is at that point your family and friends might start reading between the lines to find themselves in your pages.

I’ve mentioned before that the protagonist of Pentimenti is a woman named Ellen. She’s certainly closer to ‘the real me’ than other characters I’ve created, such as for short stories and poems. Especially because this is my first novel (I have ideas for the next one, if little more concrete!) I wanted my book to focus on a character I could understand deeply: not necessarily my doppelgänger but the embodiment of what matters most to me. Nevertheless, Ellen is not the only person in Pentimenti. I’d like to inhabit and empathise with every character I create. Is that possible? I can’t help but type with my own hands and think with my own mind: is it inevitable that my fingerprints will be on everything I write? However deeply felt, is my empathy just that: my empathy?

On the other hand, the process of writing has also made it clear to me that the idea of Ellen as a version of myself – who I’ve conveniently sent down the rabbit hole of creative literature – would hinge on me having a remarkably accurate, not to mention rigorously self-aware, understanding of my own character. Write what you know is intriguing advice, but when it comes to a full-length work of fiction do we know ourselves well enough to put that into practice?

Certainly, many of the most memorable modern novels have been informed by autobiographical elements. Consider, for example, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. As I’m sure many of you will be aware, Plath experienced depression and a breakdown like her central character Esther Greenwood, and the emotions of those passages have a raw authenticity to them. And yet perhaps because of its parallels with real life, coupled with the knowledge that her death came only a month after the book’s UK publication, Plath is often referred to today as either a poet or general ‘writer’, rather than as a novelist or writer of fiction. It seems safe to assume that The Bell Jar was shaped by Plath’s personal experiences. But if we attribute the power of her prose to its real life parallels, aren't we doing a disservice to her creative and imaginative mind?

I’m concerned that there can be a gender problem in how we interpret fiction that is informed by fact, particularly when those facts concern the writer’s own life. How many awkward but intellectually gifted men has Ian McEwan written about? How many same-sex relationships has Alan Hollinghurst depicted? And yet they remain heavyweights of the fictional genre: readers and critics are happy to accept that, whatever personal factors may have piqued their interest, such writers are only using their private concerns to examine wider themes. ‘Women’s writing’ has often been dismissed as narrow or domestic, but is that based in content or sexism? Why is Scarlett O’Hara (written by Margaret Mitchell) a romantic heroine rather than a symbol of the dynamic yet fatally flawed Southern States? And why is Jay Gatsby (written by F. Scott Fitzgerald) not simply a charismatic, tragic fantasist but an emblem for the devastation of greed and the American dream turning into a nightmare?

This leads me back to the question that friends and family have asked me: what’s it about? And I think I’ve changed my answer. I used to say, even to myself, that Pentimenti is about a young woman who goes back to the land where she was born. Now I can see that it’s also about whether art can create a voice for the voiceless. Both are true! Which do you prefer? And will Pentimenti be more than the sum of its parts, or simply a book by a girl, about a girl, for a girl (or two or three)?

Bookmark (what I've been reading when I need a break from writing - otherwise known as often!)

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. Odd’s fish, this is a guilty pleasure! A romp through the aristocratic ranks of England in the midst of the French Revolution. I’ve already mentioned Scarlett O’Hara in this blog, and actually the SP reminds me of reading Gone With the Wind. Isn’t it awful how enjoyable it can be to find yourself on the ‘wrong side’ of a war?!

I was especially delighted when the Pimpernel arranged a secret meeting on 2nd October, which I read about on 2nd October. So delighted, in fact, that I posted the page on Instagram – I’m sure it will go viral any minute now! Next up, I’m off to watch the BBC version of Pimpernel on YouTube: prepare for the next blog to be very late INDEED!

Line(s) of the Week: my favourite line I've written this week - although whether it makes the final cut will be a different story!

One of the many things she habitually fails at is veganism. Now that’s a line inspired by real life!

Pure water, clear and unpolluted, yet with a grey hue to the translucence that stops it from sparkling. This one, not so much!

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