creative nonfiction

Facts From Fiction?

I learned a lot about ancient Greece from Mary Renault and quite a bit about the French Revolution from Hilary Mantel. Reading Mary Stewart’s novels about Merlin and Arthur made me want to learn more about the facts behind the legends. I knew nothing about the business of making and selling fine china and porcelain until I read Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (which also has an unexpected mini-travelogue of central Florida).

All of these books are works of fiction, but with the bonus of facts, or at least gateways to facts. Fiction is fiction, however, so it’s unfair to expect hard factual information there. Or is it?

Some would say that if a writer decides to use a historical period as the setting for their work, they must learn all about it and be true to the facts. If a novel contains information about a profession or craft, the author is obligated to find out all about it and not guess or extrapolate. Others would argue that unless the plot of the novel directly involves historical events or technical processes, it’s all right for the author to blur things a bit. After all, how many readers are going to bother checking whether a battle was fought on a Tuesday or a Sunday, or what the exact temperature is for firing porcelain? And anyway, no one should expect to learn history or science from novels. If you want to find out about Athens in the time of Socrates, or what Alexander the Great was really like, there are plenty of serious, well-researched books about these subjects.

Well, what do I think?

Except for students, it’s very unlikely that anyone would read a serious, well-researched book on anything if their interest in that subject hadn’t been piqued by something, such as a story in the media or a work of fiction. Authors of novels can contribute to knowledge in this way, and they are most likely to do this by incorporating into their fiction subjects about which they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

I also think writers must exercise responsibility when they incorporate elements from the real world into their fiction. For example, World War I appears several times in my Herbert West Trilogy. It was such an enormous and terrible part of history that I decided I had to treat it with respect, which meant doing a lot of reading about the conditions the soldiers and medical personnel endured. Writing about quasi-fictional places in H.P. Lovecraft’s New England, such as Arkham and Kingsport (thought to be Salem and Marblehead), made me uneasy, as I have never been near these places, but I rationalized my ignorance with their quasi-fictional nature.

Even though fiction is fiction, therefore, it presents a unique opportunity to entice people into reading and learning more about the real world. Writers of novels must keep this in mind, and writers of nonfiction would do well to sharpen their technique and present their facts in prose that is entertaining as well as educational.

A Good Read for a Flood Year

The news about flooding in the lower Mississippi and the opening of the Morganza Spillway prompted me to dig out a book I remembered as highly interesting when I read it years ago — The Control of Nature, by John McPhee (1989). The book contains three lengthy essays or prose documentaries about the interaction of humans with natural forces. The first of them, entitled “Atchafalaya,”  is particularly apt. It describes how European settlers began to “manage” the Mississippi in the late 18th century, an endless process that continues today under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In the context of an inspection cruise by members of the Corps, McPhee depicts the primary problem of the Mississippi — it wants to go westward, to yield its substance to the Atchafalaya, a phenomenon called river capture that has been going on for millennia, and which built the Mississippi Delta. Until the 1950s, when it became unacceptable to commerce and transportation, and the Corps of Engineers came forward to stop it by building the Old River Control Structure. McPhee’s article lays out the consequences of this and other efforts at Mississippi management in brisk and agile prose. Reading about what has happened to sediments around New Orleans, I thought about Hurricane Katrina. Reading about the floods of 1973, the only other time the Morganza Spillway was opened, I think about right now. In the late 1980s, McPhee asked several knowledgeable people about the possibility that the control structure might fail despite the immense efforts to strengthen it, and the Atchafalaya would capture the Mississippi after all. It seems that question is still out there and still unanswered.

McPhee doesn’t draw conclusions. He describes what he sees and relays the opinions of the experts without comment. He does not use the word “hubris.” But it certainly popped into my mind as I read.

It’s fascinating to read about human-enhanced disaster on an unusually rainy late May morning, during a spring that has been wetter and cooler than normal. A real flood is not likely here in Victoria B.C., but Manitoba is experiencing something like the Mississippi floods right now, complete with a sacrificial dyke breach.

John McPhee also spent a lot of time talking with geologists on the west coast and wrote about plate tectonics, faults, and related matters (Annals of the Former World, Assembling California). An epic flood is unlikely here, but an earthquake is all too real a possibility. Perhaps I should read those books again.

Reading the Real and the Unreal

A while ago I posted here about reading Dan Simmons’s book The Terror, a clever grafting of a horror theme onto a historical one. In an afterword to the novel Simmons cited a large number of sources he consulted in the process of writing the book. Among them were two books, Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, and Ice Blink by Scott Cookman. Even after the nearly 800 pages of Simmons’s book, the fate of the Franklin Expedition lingered in my mind, so I got hold of those two books and read them quite quickly. Each espouses its own theory as to what brought down Franklin and his 128 men — Beattie thought it was lead poisoning and Cookman favoured botulism, both originating in badly processed canned foods.

Maybe it’s all the critiquing I do these days (I belong to two critique groups), but I found myself paying more attention to the writing of these two nonfiction books than I would have years ago. Beattie and Geiger’s writing is more academic than Cookman’s but their narrative is more personal. The odd thing, however, is that Geiger was not a member of the expeditions in which bodies of three members of the Franklin Expedition were exhumed and autopsied. He wrote the book in the third person — describing how Beattie did this or that, along with other members of the various research parties involved. I found this a bit disconcerting, especially in sections describing personal impressions of weather and field conditions, encounters with bears and other wildlife and the emotions generated by dealing with the three individuals whose remains were exhumed and studied.

Cookman did not actually visit the sites in Nunavut where Franklin Expedition remains and artifacts have been found, as far as I know. His book  is a result of research at a remove, and it is an interesting read. Toward the end, Cookman seems to abandon objectivity and waxes a bit too enthusiastic on the evils of shoddy food processing. Earlier, he delves into the personal histories and characteristics of the men in charge of the expedition — Sir John Franklin and his senior officers, Captains Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames. I recognized quite a few details that Simmons seized upon and expanded with the flair of the novelist — for example, Crozier’s melancholy personality and romantic failures, the amazing variety of foodstuffs and luxuries brought on board the ships by the officers, and the theatrical entertainments staged on icebound ships in order to keep the crews in good spirits. It was interesting to see these links between works of fiction and nonfiction and got me thinking about these two modes of writing.

Lately there is a lot of buzz about something called “creative nonfiction.” Often this term is applied to memoirs which supposedly demonstrate the kind of “creative” prose found in fiction, an artful use of language that brings immediacy and freshness to the reader. I think that any kind of writing can be creative in some sense, even academic papers and legal briefs, within the strictures imposed by the primary purposes of the writing. “Creative nonfiction,” then, is merely a new term applied to something which has existed for a long time.

As someone who writes fiction by choice and nonfiction (reports to do with my job and, long ago, term papers in university) by necessity, I do have an appreciation for well-written nonfiction. I find it to be a relief from fiction, with its sometimes desperate and self-conscious search for originality, its contrived conflicts and manufactured “hooks.” Writing about something objective frees the author from the need to create worlds and characters. Garden writing is a good example. I return again and again to books by the late Henry Mitchell, Eleanor Perenyi and Sara B. Stein, and their British colleagues Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto.

Then there is travel writing, another genre to which the term “creative nonfiction” is applied. I do not read much in this genre, but I have recently discovered the books of Craig Childs. They are far more than accounts of travel; Childs’s journeys into remote parts of the American Southwest carry the larger themes of the migrations of the Anasazi (House of Rain), the ethics of antiquities collecting (Finders Keepers), or being in a landscape (Soul of Nowhere).

Childs’s prose is exquisite. Whether he is describing a landscape, the movements of a climber or an ancient artifact (discovered, observed and left in place), his words are as carefully selected and assembled as those of any novelist. He demonstrates a broad knowledge of and deep familiarity with Southwest archaeology. Apparently he considered entering that field once, but decided against it. Archaeology made the leap from the humanities to the sciences some decades ago, and is very sensitive to its status among the quantitative fields of scholarship. Present day archaeologists are careful not to speculate beyond their painstakingly assembled evidence, at least not in writing. In published papers, their use of language is as precise, dry and emotionless as that of any physicist. Childs, a familiar of archaeology rather than a practitioner, is free to interweave field research with accounts of his personal explorations, to extrapolate from an interlude in a laundromat to the significance of the arrival of polychrome pottery in southern Arizona 700 years ago. Archaeology’s loss has been the reader’s gain.

You can find Craig Childs’s website at: