author G.S. Johnston, blending fact and fiction, discerning fact from fiction, novels based on fact, Novels set during World War Two, novels set during WWII, novels set in Australia, Sweet Bitter Can by G.S. Johnston
I remember my primary school library, a large room in the middle of a railway carriage of cold classrooms. The non-fiction was on the left-handside of the room and the fiction on the right. The twain met on the reading mat in the middle of the room. I think I’ve always kept this line in my head between fiction and non-fiction.
Real life is rarely a novel. Despite all the puffed-up grandeur we ascribe to our own circumstance, it rarely follows precisely the neat structural dictates of a novel, with all its demands to satisfy the well-hewed expectations of a reader. I liken it to making bread. The stories are mixed, allowed to prove, punched down, re-kneaded, baked and finally eaten.
Recently, a pleased reader emailed me saying she wished she’d known Sweet Bitter Cane was based in fact. Although she enjoyed it, this would have helped her connect more to the story. While I was grateful for her praise, it was an odd experience, cast back to my primary school library and its division of fact and fiction.
I couldn’t have drummed up the events of Sweet Bitter Cane; a young, Italian woman fleeing physically and fiscally destroyed post-WWI Northern Italy, hoping to find a better life on the sugarcane fields in the Far North of Queensland in Australia. But all that hope became mired in relentless racism, envy and resentment, resulting in her being accused of supporting fascism and imprisoned for a significant part of WWII.
These were the facts I’d gathered together over decades of interest, not one story but a repeated story of many Italian migrants to Australia. But when a neighbor, Gloria, gave me a folder of archived documents about her mother, Gina, her arrest and imprisonment, the bones of the story started accruing flesh and blood.
The documents I had about the “real” woman were scant and fractured. In a way, she was unremarkable. And, as a woman of that epoch, her accounts of life were rarely recorded. But as a writer, I was in an incredibly privileged position – my neighborwas the “real” woman’s daughter. How easy was it for me to pop next door and mine Gloria’s memories of the house, the farm, the town, the concentration camp and life after their release. But even this had limits. Gloria, so young when she was forced to go with her mother to the camp, only had one memory; of being put in a car and taken away from her mother.
I commenced more research, found more details, corroborated other facts. But I still didn’t have a story adhering to the genre expectations of my reader. I began to knead what I possessed and often with surprising results. I noticed amongst the documents, the “real” woman’s husband had written many letters. They were always in different handwriting, but the signature was the same. I thought, he couldn’t read or write. And when I asked Gloria, she blushed and asked how I knew? I realised she wasn’t telling me the whole “real” story and that there were private details she found either embarrassing or had forgotten.
At this point, I felt a justified sense of liberation. I had these bare bones I could perhaps bend but not break, but the story’s flesh was mine. I had to fill the cracks between the documents with imagination. The “un-real” woman had to have thoughts, imaginings, desires and disappointments. These were never written, probably never spoken, perhaps embarrassing, never entirely clear to anyone but her. And this is the stuff of a novel’s pages.
But this reader’s well-intentioned email left me in a bit of a quandary. In the run-up to the publication of Sweet Bitter Cane, I’d considered bannering in fluorescent pink across the cover – BASED ON A TRUE STORY. And the novel is, at least in part, but then … it seemed a cheap lunge at credibility.
I swooned and still do to Byatt’s Possession, where the whole thing was made up, securely positing Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel La Motte amongst their canonical contemporaries. But I still read Eco’s The Name of the Rose as fiction which inspired me to cross the reading mat and read some non-fiction about medieval monks. Should we colour a novel’s text, like the original imprint of Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, with a rainbow of colours to signify the real, the not-so-real, the un-real, and the lies? Footnotes – there’s a thought. And a mess. This all forces an historical fiction writer into a rather obtuse corner.
But rather than the lines between the two extremes being as demarcated as my primary school library, isn’t this reading mat between the two extremes the arena where the reader’s imagination comes into play? Reading is far from a passive experience, and perhaps an historical novel should tweak a reader’s imagination to find more information, go to the left-hand side of the reading mat, if they so desire.
An historical novel churns all this “real” and “un-real” to rich butter, much more than a cheap blended Rosé. But they are un-real novels and should be exalted as such. It reminds me of a late twentieth-century popular song.
It takes courage to enjoy it
The hardcore and the gentle
Big time sensuality
Many thanks, Greg. I’ll be thinking of this dividing line and the reading mat when I read my next historical novel.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.