Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“At this hour of the morning, the prison was quiet…”

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"At this hour of the morning, the prison was quiet..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 8. You can read the earlier installments here.)

There’s an unspoken assumption among many readers and critics that a good author should base his work entirely on personal experience, either derived from his own life or those of people he knows, and that it’s a sign of weakness to be overly dependent on research. If it’s clear that a writer has relied heavily on secondary sources to tell a story, or, worse, if the nature of those sources is readily detectable, it’s sometimes treated as a sort of lapse, even as an embarrassment. It’s generally agreed, for instance, that Tolstoy’s material on the Freemasons in War and Peace was based on his reading, not on firsthand information: he wasn’t a Mason himself, and other Masons wouldn’t be likely to share any details with him directly, so the scenes depicting Pierre’s initiation—which are believed to be fundamentally accurate—were derived from a handful of books. I’ve read critics who treat this as an objective flaw in an otherwise unimpeachable masterpiece, as if the knowledge that Tolstoy had to do a bit of research undermines our impression of him as an omniscient sage of the human world. And this flies in the face of the fact that all of War and Peace is a monumental work of research and construction, since it contains so much that Tolstoy never could have witnessed himself.

And this applies as much, if not more so, to contemporary authors. Ian McEwan, for example, based large sections of Atonement on the memoirs of Lucilla Andrews, who served as a nurse during the London blitz. McEwan wasn’t shy about giving credit to Andrews—he mentions her in his acknowledgments—but when a few readers pointed out how certain details in his novel seemed to be taken directly from her work, there was a mild outcry, with some even calling it a form of plagiarism. I doubt that anyone would have raised the issue if McEwan had conducted interviews with Andrews directly, but the revelation that parts of his story were transparently indebted to another book made some readers uncomfortable. The plagiarism charge was ridiculous, of course, as none other than Thomas Pynchon, a monster of research himself, made clear in an open letter to his publisher:

Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do.

"When they reached the last corridor..."

Pynchon’s assessment of research as a kind of period of consolidation until “we can begin to make a few things of our own up” is absolutely correct, and library research is part of nearly every ambitious novelist’s bag of tricks. Research, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is less about factual accuracy than about providing the material for dreams, a gathering of “engaging details” that can furnish and feather the fictional nest we’ve created. (That last phrase is Anthony Lane’s, discussing Gustave Flaubert’s own voluminous research for Salammbo.) That’s true of literary as well as popular fiction: Saul Bellow had never been to Africa when he wrote Henderson the Rain King, but he was able to draw on travel accounts, textbooks, his own experience as a student of anthropology, and above all his own peerless imagination to create a remarkably convincing story, as even Norman Mailer admitted: “I don’t know if any other American writer has done Africa so well.” And it’s particularly indispensable for a novelist working in a field like suspense, where so much of the narrative necessarily deals with aspects of human life—murder, crime, conspiracy—that few writers have the luxury or desire to experience directly.

This was particularly true of City of Exiles, which I knew from the start would include long sequences set in the British prison system. I didn’t have any expectation of spending much time there myself, so I was forced to fall back on a handful of useful secondary sources: the memoirs of Charles Bronson, best known these days as the subject of a movie starring Tom Hardy, and especially the diaries of the suspense novelist Jeffrey Archer, who was sent to prison for perjury. We first see the result in Chapter 8, in which Powell and Wolfe pay a visit to Belmarsh to see the imprisoned gangster Vasylenko. Most of the details here, like the corridor that changes from lavender to green to blue as you enter a secure area, or the description of the interview room, walled with glass on all four sides like a fish tank, were taken from Archer’s book, and I draw on it repeatedly for all of the prison material that follows. I’m not sure if admitting this counts as a breach in the contract between an author and his readers—a suspense novelist, after all, is often expected to know something about everything—but I don’t see any harm in acknowledging my sources. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to write this novel at all. And we’re going to be spending a lot of time behind bars…

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2013 at 9:33 am

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