AND FICTION: A RELATIONSHIP
“Dear, I think I’ve stayed too long at the fair.”
What’s important about this sentence is that my 93 year
old grandmother actually said it (to my mother). Though my grandmother
was not cursed with Alzheimer's, she was struggling with the vagaries
of old age. There is a point when things just start to break down
-- no matter how strong a body is, no matter how resilient the
genes. Dorothy B. Goodenough had outlived three husbands, nearly
all of her nine sisters, and most of her friends. She was gradually
losing her eyesight, had difficulty making her way from the bedroom
to the kitchen, was too distracted to play cards, and seemed to
enjoy losing her hearing aid just a little too much. In other
words, life in this world (the world we call reality) was becoming
I was saddened and moved by my grandmother’s words. But
the writer in me soon crowded out the sensitive grandson. I thought
-- what a marvelous phrase! What spontaneous poetry! Isn’t
“fair” the perfect metaphor for life ? As if what
we call living was just a temporary visit to an enchanting vacation
spot! The ferris wheel is love, and the chamber of horrors represents
-- (what?) physical pain, rejection, depression, psychosis. But
it’s all a fair really, and we’re visiting, for a
time, and we all have to yank ourselves back to (what?) the other
thing -- that other reality, death.
Sentimental? Yes. Melodramatic? Perhaps. But what made the metaphor
so powerful for me was the fact that my grandmother actually said
it. It’s the kind of overheard or remembered phrase that
a writer cherishes and stashes in that important file of ‘things-I-might-use-in-a-novel-or-poem-someday.’
Of course now that I’ve told you about it, I won’t
use it. (Or rather, it has been used).I want to make the point
that even if one has not set out to write a non-fiction novel
(my latest project) one is still -- even as a writer of fiction
-- constantly drawing from reality. But because that sentence
is tied to real people in my life, if I had ever used it in fiction,
I would have to separate it from all that baggage, and make it
a part of something else. I’ve given you a few hints about
my grandmother’s life (yes, her name really is Dorothy B.
Goodenough!), but unless I decide to write a novel about my grandmother
(highly unlikely) I would be using the sentence out of context.
I would be wrenching a piece of poetry from the multi-faceted
psychological and practical verities to which it is so ineluctably
linked. This is something (cruel) which writers often do. As part
of the surgery I would also be forced to sever that sentence from
the details which make my grandmother my grandmother and my mother
my mother. I would have to ignore what informs the sentence --
why for instance my grandmother uses faintly poetic language (she
was a schoolteacher), why she understates (she’s a Pollyanna).
I would also have to forget the complex and (oh what shall I tactfully
say?) Shakespearean drama that constitutes the relationship between
my mother and grandmother (that familiar, combustible mixture
of resentment and affection).
So why use the sentence at all? Isn’t there much to be lost,
and a great disservice done to my grandmother and mother? Aren’t
I being insensitive to them both, here, by exploiting their lives
for something as inconsequential as a paltry literary essay? Of
course the reason why writers use phrases, incidents, characters
(whatever) from real life, is because the process gives our writing
a certain authenticity. It’s all about convincing the reader
that what you are saying is true; that it all actually happened.
As far as I’m concerned, no piece of fiction is worth anything
unless I am convinced that I am being told a real story, a true
confession (remember ‘write what you know?). If all I can
think about is how well crafted a novel is, then I know I’ll
put the thing down in no time at all.
Authenticity means that for the space of reading I am a believer.
Any satisfying interface with a work of fiction demands, for me,
that I begin to speculate about the real life of the author. Thus
it has always interested me to play with my narrative voice (which
is always first person) in such a way as to suggest that my novels
are actually about me. In a review of my second novel (St. Stephen’s)
Jim Bartley assured the readers “the narrator IS Sky Gilbert.”
In my third novel (I Am Kaspar Klotz), the leading character an
unrepentant AIDS serial killer; a homosexual who enjoys killing
other homosexuals with his own sperm. Since the publication of
Kasper, I’ve noticed fags crossing to the other side of
the street when I walk by (more so than usual, that is!). I take
a perverse pleasure in this; it means I’ve done my job.
(Similarly, it is my job to convince you that this essay is my
sincere opinion and contains real facts. I realize that this is
a non-fiction piece -- but I could be lying. My opinions about
the creative process change as I grow -- all things do. In fact
we are not the same person one minute that we are the next. As
soon as I have written something down, it has the potential to
become fiction. Basically, I don’t believe there actually
is such a thing as fiction -- or non-fiction -- except in intent.
Writers choose to call certain things non-fiction and other things
fiction, and thereby attempt to manipulate the reactions of their
audiences. The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that
non-fiction, by definition, is the least truthful of the two.
Non-fiction is all about surface -- facts, opinion, circumstance,
what we know to be true through our senses. Fiction is about a
real -- deeper -- truth. I have written three novels and a memoir.
The memoir is not the real truth. The real emotional truth of
my life lies in my novels. )
Which brings me to my next project: An English Gentleman. This
book is very unlike my previous novels, because it has more than
one narrator and more than one point of view. In An English Gentleman
there are four major characters, and they all speak to the reader
in the first person. Two of them are ‘fictional’ characters
made up of various personalities that I have inside me (or have
met). The other two characters are constructed in a very similar
fashion. But they share the names of two men who actually lived
-- James Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) and his adopted son
Michael Llewelyn Davies.
The novel is based on an historical incident. Here is the newspaper
quote which inspired the novel (and which is quoted in the first
chapter): “The young men, Mr. Michael Llewelyn Davies and
Mr. Rupert E.V. Buxton, were drowned near Sandford bathing pool,
Oxford, yesterday. The two were almost inseparable companions.
Mr. Davies was only 20 and Mr. Buxton was 22.”
It’s interesting to me that the original article goes on
to speculate -- in fictive fashion -- about the deeper meaning
of the tragedy. “One recalls the words of Peter himself
‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’”
That’s journalism for you. It wouldn’t resonate back
in 1920, or now, if that arbiter of fact, that mistress of accuracy
-- the daily newspaper -- didn’t embellish, fantasize and
even dance a little pirouette around the truth . Which is what
I was compelled to do, too. I had written about James Barrie for
my Masters thesis; but I hadn’t been able to write about
the death of his adopted son. Barrie made friends with the five
Llewelyn Davies boys at the turn of the century, and he was inspired
by that friendship to write Peter Pan. When the boy’s parents
died tragically and unexpectedly, Barrie adopted the five boys.
Three of the boys died early -- George (young, in World War One),
Michael (young, drowned) and Peter (later in life, by his own
hand). The death which particularly interested me was the one
in which Michael died in the arms of another boy, his best friend.
The drowning took place in a well known deathtrap (signs were
posted that it was a dangerous area) and neither of the boys knew
how to swim. After Michael’s death, his older brother Peter
suggest that perhaps Michael and his friend were lovers. Was it
double gay suicide? And there is another particularly juicy piece
to this mystery -- Michael was closer to James Barrie than any
of his brothers. And Michael and Barrie had written almost two
thousand letters to each other during Michael’s brief life.
None of the letters survived. They were burned by Michael’s
older brother Peter, not long before Peter committed suicide.
What was in those letters? Well I don’t know and neither
does anyone else. But I couldn’t resist weaving my own little
fantasy about their contents. For the incident raises all sorts
of interesting questions. Barrie’s relationship with Michael
was similar to Charles Dodgson’s relationship with Alice
Liddell (the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland). In both cases,
an author became obsessed with a child, and took numerous photographs
of the child (photographs in which the child was naked and/or
clothed in the costume of various fanciful characters). In both
cases the author wrote a famous story as a gift for the child.
But Was James Barrie --- the author of what is arguably the greatest
children’s play ever written -- a pederast? Was he in love
with his adopted son, and perhaps complicit in his death?
Of course you can begin to see from these questions that my fictional
improvisation on factual things is tempered (infected?) by my
own agenda. And it’s obviously a homosexual agenda. What
interests me about these cold hard facts is the way they touch
on homosexuality, the relationship between Michael and his best
friend, and the relationship between Michael and his adoptive
father James Barrie. At least that’s what interests me on
the surface. I don’t actually think that is my genuine interest.
I am much more interested in two much more important issues: love
and death. But I guarantee that no matter how well I do my job,
this novel will be perceived as a ‘homosexual novel.’
It doesn’t matter how much I repeat that the opinions in
the novel (and there are many) are not necessarily my own, and
are not even the most important part of the novel.
Today, in our culture, if a novel has gay relationships as it’s
primary subject matter that’s all the novel can be about.
In this respect, I can’t help mentioning a detail about
playwright Terence Rattigan. There is an incident in one of Rattigan’s
plays (Separate Tables) which is based on real life. In this play,
a retired major (named Pollock) is caught molesting women in a
cinema. But the inspiration for this play was a much more scandalous
incident -- John Gielgud’s arrest for having sex with a
man in a lavatory in Chelsea (1953). When the play moved from
London to Broadway, Rattigan wanted to change the Major’s
crime to more accurately reflect it’s real life inspiration:
Major Pollock was to become a homosexual. Rattigan argued that
English audiences knew what the play was really about, so there
was no need to actually mention homosexuality. American audiences,
he posited, would not be able to read between the lines. But Rattigan’s
producer in New York wouldn’t allow the change. He argued
that -- thus altered -- the play would be about homosexuality
and nothing else. Rattigan left his play unchanged.
I suppose my interest in the non fiction novel does have something
to do with trying to convince people that a novel that has primarily
gay content can actually be about something else. But the non-fiction
novel -- reportedly invented by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood
-- is having a bit of a renaissance of late. And both Canadian
biographer Phyllis Gottleib and Canadian literary columnist Noah
Richler have recently railed against it. Ms. Gottleib complained
(in the year 2000 at the Montreal Blue literary conference) about
those who mix fact and fiction. If I may paraphrase her (I didn’t
have my tape recorder handy at the time): ‘Facts are facts’
(which is where she and I must agree to disagree) ‘and fiction
is altogether something else.’ To mix up the two is thus
to loosen our tenuous hold on reality, and to diminish the achievement
of the actual, meticulous, footnoted, biography. My argument would
be that no biographer presents merely the facts about his or her
subject, and that the fictional biography encourages us to be
suspicious of the truthfulness of non-fiction.
In a recent article in the National Post, Mr. Richler asserted
that the non-fiction novel is not only a trend, but a self interested
ploy by less-than-talented writers to lure readers by attaching
their names to more prestigious ones (see Michael Cunningham and
Virginia Woolf, Kate Taylor and Marcel Proust). On the one hand,
I can only say that I can’t see how yanking my name together
forever to James Barrie’s is going to serve me very well.
He’s not a terrifically respected writer (most think his
work is overly sentimental twee sweetness for children) and secondly,
the possibilities I’m raising about J.M. Barrie’s
life are not particularly pleasant, especially for those who are
to any degree homophobic and/or love Peter Pan (which probably
describes a good majority of people in the western world at present
). But on the other hand, I want to be completely honest about
my motives. Yes, my reasons for writing a non-fiction novel are
somewhat self interested -- but there are sexual politics involved.
I am in somewhat of a different position than Michael Cunningham
or Kate Taylor, since my plays, novels and poems are primarily
about gay men and their relationships. Thus, it’s actually
necessary for some people to know that they are based to some
degree on reality (i.e. there are gay men, and famous ones, and
respected ones, who actually engage in these outrageous acts).
Also, I think it’s important for gay men (and lesbians)
to write about famous queer lives because we need role models.
(I don’t not necessarily mean ‘positive’ queer
lives, or conventionally ‘successful’ queer lives
-- I don’t mean role models in the sense of people to emulate
or copy. I mean, simply real lives to look at and set our own
Finally, I have written many plays which were fictional biographies
of famous homosexuals. I’ve written plays about Cavafy,
Pasolini, David Hockney, Tennesse Williams, E.A. Lacey, and I’ve
even tried to claim Schubert and Shakespeare for the gay canon.
Part of the reason is because people can pretend that they are
coming to see my little play -- not because it is gay -- but because
it’s about something important (i.e. an historical figure).
I mean, what are you supposed to do when for all your life you’ve
been getting reviews that say your work “redeems”
your subject matter (homosexuality)? I remember years ago when
a major Canadian (heterosexual) actor told me, quite unapologetically,
that the reason he’d never been able to come to see a play
at Buddies in Bad Times (Toronto’s gay and lesbian theatre)
was because he’d have had to wear a paper bag to hide his
face. Well I guess writing a non-fiction novel is the paper bag
I’m graciously offering my potentially embarrassed readers.
But the most important thing to remember is this: I chose to write
about the relationship between Barrie and his adopted son because
I think it suggests a damn good story. And of course my novel
is not really about James Barrie or homosexuality, or pederasty.
It’s about things which concern me personally, and deeply.
It’s really about me -- my inner emotional reality ? it’s
about love and loneliness, probably. And the point which I wish
to make here is that the technique that any novelist uses to make
his or her work more authentic, is to use details from real life.
Sometimes in its real details the novel is very much like the
author’s life, and sometimes not. Sometimes the author presents
accurate portraits of real people, and sometimes the characters
are amalgamations or bloated, stretched caricatures of real people.
And of course sometimes the work is presented as purely fiction,
and sometimes -- as in the case of An English Gentleman -- not.
But all novels are (to some degree at least) non-fiction.
I’ll give you one more detail, drawn directly from real
life, and then I’ll say goodbye. I’m telling you this
because I’ve had a old pesky business card taped to my computer
for a couple of years. I’ve been threatening to write a
novel, or a poem, or a play about it for a long time. But I don’t
think I ever will, so I might as well tell you about it. I found
it one weekend in Stratford. I was staying with my friend Camille
Mitchell (an actress in the company) who had been billeted at
a rather grand old Stratford manse. There were many books. I was
bored one rainy afternoon (it’s very easy to get bored in
Stratford) and happened to pick up a collection of Nathaniel West’s
short stories, which included The Dream Life of Balso Snell. (This
short story quickly became one of my favorites). I loved the book
so much that -- I’m quite ashamed to admit -- I stole it.
When I got it home, a business card fell out of it. The name officially
printed on one side of the business card was Michael...somebody
(I won’t tell you his last name in case he’s still
around). On the other side a very personal note was handwritten,
in a very carefully sculpted script.
“Terry You’ll find me in the bar. Pls bring this,...I
have neighbours. Micheal.”
I have no idea what the message means. But it seemed to me then
(and still does) very surreptitious, exciting, and mysterious.
Of course I immediately imagined that Terry and Micheal were lovers.
What adds spice to the mystery is that Michael is spelled ‘Michael’
on the business card and ‘Micheal’ on the back (in
the handwritten note). Why bring the card? What significance are
the neighbours? The plot thickens... I give this little slice
of real life to you, as a sort of offering. Use it in a story
if you like -- it’s up for grabs! I haven’t used it
in a story yet, and I never will. Unless, of course, this is a
story. But it’s not a story is it? This is an essay, right?
I leave it up to you.