Over the past while I’ve noticed a number of situations where an author is asked about the autobiographical or non-fiction elements in their books. It has always been something that people are interested in, and that interviewers or reviewers tend to gravitate toward, but recently it seems I’ve had to consider this very closely during a project, or have had to think on it more and more while engaging with writers and readers. In writing a profile of John Irving for the National Post (and interviewing for a job with the man last year), I saw an almost obsessive amount of material on how much of his writing comes from real life. This is something that Irving flatly dismisses, and convincingly so, and I deliberately did not ask him rote questions on how much “fiction” is in his fiction during our talks.
Writing what's real, Writing what you fear the most...
This kept coming up also during my weekend at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo, where the opening event was a panel with Nino Ricci and Don Gilmour, and the conversation turned toward their writing kind of reprehensible characters in their latest novels, and the fact that people tend to associate them with the characters, and react to the actual authors with some level of apprehension or disdain, assuming that to write about bad people, or people doing bad things, you have to have been or done them yourself. Ricci and Gilmour were quick to dismiss it as well, and discussed how writing those characters was more exciting than the standard “good guy” types. They, in fact, were nothing like their characters, and had much less eventful or painful lives. Similarly, John Irving has gone on the record saying that he does not write about has happened to him, but about “what he is most afraid of.” He writes about "what he hopes never happens to him, or anyone he loves." Irving has had an interesting go of it, that is certain, but he maintains that he has had a good life with a marked lack of tragedy, and that even the formative events of his life that are much discussed did not have a negative effect on him.
On the panel I was invited to, Pushing Boundaries, the other writers all said plainly that their fiction is “fiction,” and that it would be a mistake to think of it otherwise. When that microphone came to me, I could not say the same. I told the audience that, after all of this talk of distancing our writing from real life and insisting that it be regarded only as fiction, my work is full with things that “actually happened.” It is built on many, many real life events and experiences and some of them are barely fictionalized or altered. Many of those were significant in my life, formative, and tragic. People who know me well enough know how much of my real life, and the lives of my family and friends, has gone into the work. It is almost too close to home for many of them. My brother, in particular, says he has a very hard time reading my work and I’ve told him many times that, if I can write it, he can read it. To be fair to him though, the writing is how I process what has happened in my life, how I make sense of the worst of it. Telling those things and pulling them apart and putting them back together in a way that serves the story is my main aim as a writer, to be able to use those ingredients and fit them to the story with craft, to maintain some emotional heft while not allowing it to restrain the narrative or language. These are difficult things to do, and other writers I know have cringed just hearing about some of it, or that approach in general, but it is how I’ve always written, and it is likely never going to change.
Origins of a "Fiction" Writer
When I think of how this all happened, it has to go way back to my mother’s family, those northern English and Northern Irish folks who had very, very hard lives. Many of them I did not know, or knew for just a short while. Many died young, and tragically, and their stories were told and retold by their brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and became part of our lives. Now, as a grown man, I remember those stories and go over them with my mother, and find that the details have changed, or that my memories of them were slippery. I had the wrong uncle driving a getaway van and burying evidence in north Wales. I had the years wrong when they moved from County Armagh to Liverpool and Birkenhead, and mixed up those who were born in Merseyside or Northern Ireland. I had some details of The War wrong, and who was where when the bombs fell. Nonetheless, most of those stories are intact where it counts, in the elements that really make them matter, that moves the story and the listener, and I think that this had a huge impact on how I write and put stories together. It didn’t hurt that I had some mayhem in my life growing up, and learned a lot of things the hard way, and that a very common pastime with my friends is to sit in a room after a bunch of drinks and tell stories over and over of some utterly baffling things that have happened to us, or that we’ve done. And, in those stories, every man or woman saw a different set of happenings, and they are fluid in the telling. (Some of this real life experience, probably too much, also relates to my philosophy on writing violence, which I suggested can be learned very intimately by being involved in it, or by training in a combat sport.)
For me, it comes down to this culture of telling stories, and of openness and clannishness in my family and friends. I’ve been lucky to have family who have read the most harrowing of my stories, and who have never once asked me to dial it back, or withhold. In older generations of the family they were more tight-lipped, and usually this was a pragmatic decision. If you are poor Irish in northern England, and the police have their eyes on you, and the communities are small and society-at-large is divided by class, probably it is outright dangerous to have some truths told. Often you will hear the truth or the “real” stories when someone has died and their stories are freed. With many of my relatives gone, and the distance across the Atlantic and the distance across time and culture, most of that risk is personal. In that telling those stories can mainly take an emotional toll. That is significant enough, sure, but I come from a family that has endured enough together, openly, that the telling of it pales in comparison to actually living it. The way that these things beat you down has a way of making pretense and reputation and social standing so trivial that it’s laughable. Further, we have had to see so many things taken away that, by God, we will not allow them to take away our stories and our willingness to tell them. This is how I’ve been lucky, if you can call it that.
When I wrote a story called “To Have to Wait,” and it was a finalist for the Journey Prize, the weight of that story came from living a good deal of it. The story is about two brothers who go to get their father from a psychiatric ward, after his being committed and undergoing unsuccessful Electroconvulsive Therapy. It is about their mother at home waiting for them. It is about the one brother suffering as well and the other being relatively free from clinical depression, and both subject to it’s effect on their family throughout their lives. It is about violence and emotional outbursts that come from trying to cope with the stigma of mental illness and poverty and the lack of resources that a family might have to save the life of a sick person. It is about being away from your family for work, and not being able to come home, and feeling the weight of that distress from afar. How that relates to the helplessness you likewise feel when you are in the same house, or room as a suffering person. It is about all of that.
And that story is true.
When I spoke further about that story to my friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (a critically acclaimed author on the Journey Prize jury that year), we were talking about how much we write from real life, and how to navigate that. I told her that this story was essentially just true, everywhere it counted anyway. “Jesus Christ, Kevin,” she said. Or something to that effect. But, perhaps those difficult things that you've known in your bones for as long as you can remember, they lose that element of risk and fear in the telling. When my father was very ill again, some ten years after when that story would’ve been told, he said: “Well, here’s another story for the Journey Prize.” And we laughed about that. If you don’t laugh you’ll cry, is how that saying goes. That has always been something that my family has done, try to see the absurdity in things, and the humour, and the hope, and to endure whatever way possible. For me, that is where I’m writing from. Sure, that story is not the perfect truth, and a writer must bend real life to the story, not the other way around. You move the hospital and the geography of the town. You change the season and the weather. Make up a fight that never happened, or not on that day. But the heart of the story and the significant details are taken right out of your life. If you can maintain some honest sentiment and emotion, and step away enough to ensure that you are writing a work of fiction in form and in craft, you might be able to write something worthwhile. And, in really digging into these experiences with my writing, I’ve found that the process articulates truths about real life events and issues that I could not have come to if I’d gone at it all head on or with a more intellectual or analytical creative approach.
The reality of it all
As I mentioned in the post about editing and revision, you should never let real life, or what you have gone through, limit the mutability of the work. There are people who have had very little trauma or tragedy, and then there are some that have endured things that would make the troubles in my family pale in comparison. Truly world-destroying things, and on a physical and emotional and literal level. I would be a poor writer if I simply used real details and stories and sat them on the page and thought they were precious enough to mean something to anyone else. My aim is always to use those things I know in service of the story, but, if you can do this well, you may universalize those things you have gone through and they might shine a light on some of those experiences for another reader. Whether they’ve had similar things happen in their lives, or just have that all-important empathy that is in the best writers and readers and people. As my mother and father both said many times, when I spoke with them about this nakedness in the writing, if there are any other people who can get something out of our stories, then you should bloody well write them. They might be people with no opportunity to talk about it, or an outlet to process any of it. They might not have family or friends, or any means by which to cope with the ravages of things like physical or mental illness, or addiction, or poverty, on a personal level. They might be, actually, very much alone.
My father passed away this year, after decades fighting severe depression. It cut me off at the knees when I heard it. During that time I was completing the final revisions of my collection of stories. I can tell you that it is a very strange feeling to be working on the acknowledgements for your book, and edits for the last unpublished story from it, while you are trying to comprehend that you’ve lost one of the few people you wrote all those stories for and about, and while you are trying to make arrangements with your mother and brother and uncle on how to lay him to rest. My publisher was very kind and heartbroken by it all and told me to lay off if need be, that the book would wait. Likewise, my friend Dani Couture, fiction and poetry editor for This Magazine, told me the same regarding that last story, that it was not something I need to trouble over or be concerned with at that time.
Of course, they all knew what was in those stories, and how close to home it all was. When you write a story called “The Rope,” and the way it went in the story is more hopeful than the outcome in real life, you’d better be damn certain that you have done your job and written that story right.
I did finish the book during that time, and the story, and I did so at the encouragement of my family. Even though everyday around that work was a goddamn nightmare, and I was beside myself all the while. Everything was put into pretty stark perspective as far as what mattered in day-to-day life, and, I wondered often whether I’d have written that story if he'd passed away beforehand. The truth is, I think I would have. How close and raw all this material is, and how it was made into something else in the writing, is what gives any of my fiction weight or honest emotion between the lines. And the people represented in there have always been proud of those stories. It did not take me long to realize that I wouldn’t quit writing from my real life. In fact, I knew that I’d write more and more about it, as long as I could still do it some justice on the page.
What writing our stories is worth
So, it seems fitting to bring up all of this talk of what is “real” in the stories we write, and whether a writer should use it. There is no definitive answer, but, for those of us who openly write our lives into our fiction, and who might have had tragedy and conflict significant enough to change us, I think it is important to know that it can be done. It has to be done with great care, and, as I’ve said many times, the story is paramount. Not your own agenda or emotions or biases. If you can objectively look at these elements, accept them and digest them through the story, it might just work. For me, when I worry about what I've put into my fiction, I think on the fact that compromising those stories now, or letting real life swallow them up entirely, would make the world especially bleak. Writing our stories is the one thing I can do that I know is worth something, and all I can do now is double down on it.
The idea is an old and silly one, that you will try to write something permanent that will be read a hundred years from now and still matter. Even if you fall short, you should be aiming for that, and, if your craft can align with your unique way to process a bit of human experience that is little written but widely felt, perhaps you have a shot. Being able to lay the experiences of your life bare, while effectively bending them to your story, to fiction, can often articulate things to a writer in the telling that they were unable to absorb in the cold light of day. Being able to do this can lead to powerful stories that might reach further than the real-life ingredients that made them. It’s a tightrope walk on a very fine line over a very long drop, but it is the only way that is worth taking for some writers. Still, if you have heart and serve the story at the cost of reality and what has actually happened, if you can do that properly, you can hang the moon wherever you goddamn well please.
All in all, I would tell you that there is no one right way to approach your writing, and that this is just the way that it works for me, and the way that the writing makes sense and has purpose. You may well be more like John Irving, or Nino Ricci, or Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, and prefer to focus on what juxtaposes reality and what you have experienced. Or you might be more a Donald Ray Pollock, Bukowski, Hardcastle type, who might spill anything and who might have to as part of their process. I can only do it the one way (and it is clear that I'm not a skilled creative non-fiction writer, like my friends Liz Harmer or Dani Couture or Amanda Leduc, though I very much admire that form as well). I think that, as long as you don't let either approach hobble your writing, or your approach to craft, and that it doesn't overtly manipulate the aims of the work in an obvious way, you can fall anywhere along the spectrum as an author.
It just seemed to me that, with all of this talk of whether we are writing ourselves into the work, I would share my approach and how much of my own life goes into the writing. I think that, as long as it seems like the truth, the amount of actual truth in the work is up to you. But, in my writing, there is almost always plenty of it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. His work has been widely published in journals including The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Joyland, Shenandoah and The Walrus. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and his short fiction has been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories 24 & 26, Best Canadian Stories 15, and Internazionale.
Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, was published by Biblioasis in 2015. Debris won the 2016 Trillium Book Award, the 2016 ReLit Award for Short Fiction, was runner-up for the 2016 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.