The Informed Imagination: Drusilla Modjeska discusses writing The Mountain

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TheMountainAustralian writer Drusilla Modjeska has written an insightful and thought-provoking article in Meanjin about writing her latest book, The Mountain.

I fear the excerpt below might make the article seem like hard work but it’s definitely not.  The piece provides a fascinating glimpse into the decisions, difficulties and responsibilities of writing.

… it was, for me, a kind of liberation to come to understand that fiction stands on different ground from history. There is scope for play along the borderlines, but there is also a ravine, to use Inga Clendinnen’s word for it, or at least a rocky valley, which we should respect. From the point of view of writing, there is, I think, an epistemological necessity for even the most literary of nonfiction writers to act as the lens through which we can trust, or evaluate, or revisit for ourselves the selection, presentation and interpretation of the lives and events put before us. The nonfiction writer might use the techniques of fiction to bring lifeness to her lives and to conjure the paradox of difference. But her pact with the reader, and her subject, returns always to the record, however patchy, however interrupted, from which she works. Fiction makes a different pact. It might contain argument, but it is not an argument; it involves interpretation, but to make it depends not on reference to the sources (important though they might be) but on perspective and patterning, voice and language, metaphor and image.

Have a read and use the comments to let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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8 responses »

  1. Clendinen sets high standards for truthfulness in non-fiction writing, and seems very distrustful of historical fiction. For myself I think history can be accurately rendered by fiction but it often isn’t. But I think I disagree with Modjeska in that I do believe that fiction may be, in fact often is, used to carry an argument.

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  2. Yes, I agree with Bill – I think fiction can present an historical argument. It’s not the intent – argument, interpretation – that’s different but how far the imagination is allowed to wander. An historian (I just can’t say “a historian”) MUST make very clear when their imagination veers from “facts”, as Modjeska agrees, while a fiction writer doesn’t have to. An historian needs to realise that the reader “expects” factual “truth” (boy are these words loaded) and must therefore respect this expectation by being clear, while a novelist should be able to assume that the reader “expects” emotional “truth” and an imaginative perspective that does not have to be justified from sources. That said, I do like it when fiction writers provide an author’s note – not necessarily detailing specific sources or fact-departures – but explaining their intention in terms of/attitude towards the historical record. That sounds a bit clumsy but I hope it makes sense.

    In other words, BOTH can argue and interpret but they do it from different assumptions which then guide their practice.

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    • You make good sense, WG. Yes, good fiction illuminates the truth and good non-fiction illustrates the impossibility of ever knowing what was ‘true’. And I love a good author’s note too.

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  3. Yes. Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings for instance has a really interesting postscript about her choices in writing fiction based on the facts of Sarah Grimke’s life. My favourite, The Timeless Land has a preface for the same reason, though I don’t think MST likes her treatment of Eliz. Macarthur (that right Michelle?)

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    • The Invention of Wings is very near the top of my TBR pile (thanks to you, Bill). Regarding The Timeless Land, it’s more about staying away from all fictional treatments of the real-life people I’m studying simply because in knowing where the seams are, so to speak, between the real and the imagined, the fictional parts become too distracting and therefore annoying. When I don’t know the history so well I’m perfectly happy to read historical fiction. Loved Wolf Hall, for example.

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