Fact in Fiction

Ian McEwan is profiled in the NY Times, in anticipation of his next novel, Saturday, which is due to come out here in March. (If you are not registered, I recommend using bugmenot to obtain common-use logins/passwords.) Here’s a choice quote:

He began, though, with an anecdote about being detained for 24 hours at the Vancouver, British Columbia, airport by Homeland Security operatives as part of the stepped-up security measures after Sept. 11. Asked about his job, he said he was a novelist. “What kind of novels do you write, fact or fiction?” his questioner inquired.

The point was not just to poke fun at his interrogator. Rather, it led to a lengthy explanation of his belief in factual accuracy to underpin and nourish the novelist’s imagination. Indeed, he said, as a schoolboy of 13 he had discovered that a description of a Punch magazine cover in L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel “The Go-Between” was in fact completely accurate. “If there was a moment when I decided to become a writer, that was it,” he said.

And, he said to underscore the point, the same infusion of fact into fiction occurred in his novel “Atonement” (2001) when conversations with his aging mother, who was suffering from a neurological illness called vascular dementia, inspired the way he would handle the old age of a leading character, Briony Tallis.

Sure, fact can be used in fiction. In profiles, though, facts could do with a bit of checking. The incident,which was widely reported in April, involved McEwan being detained for 4 hours by ‘immigration officials’, and eventually spending the night at a hotel while his visa situation was cleared up between the British Consul and Homeland Security in DC. He wasn’t actually detained for 24 hours, though he was delayed for that long. At any rate, the point about infusing fiction with fact in some cases is certainly well-taken. You can read the rest of the piece here.

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