Thursday, May 2, 2013

Truth in Fiction-Guest post

By Jim Haberkorn, author of A Thousand Suns

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction must not be a stranger to truth. Consider these examples: Virtually every word of dialogue by every character in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln – an historical novel – was taken from actual diaries, newspaper accounts, memoires, and letters. If you want to know the truth about Lincoln and his cabinet, read that work of fiction. Further, those of us who have read Gone With the Wind or Killer Angels have a more complete, truthful, and balanced picture of the Civil War and the pre and post bellum South than any textbook has ever provided. And there are many other examples: I’ve never lived in a small Oregon lumber town, but after reading Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, I might as well have. And I had never visited Russia before the fall of the Iron Curtain, but I did read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, so I’ve got a good feel for what that was like. The Spanish Civil war pitted citizens of the same towns against each other in a life and death struggle. It would have been impossible for me to imagine that if I hadn’t read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

I write thrillers and read lots of thrillers, and nothing causes me to put a book down faster than a lack of truth. And by truth, I’m referring to something that goes far beyond getting street names right in a car chase – today with Google maps any halfway diligent author can do that.

Here is what I mean. When I was eighteen years old, I was a careless reader. I didn’t have a strong sense of the power and insight a good book could deliver. I enjoyed reading but my expectations were low. About that time, I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and ploughed through the book reading the words but not engrossed enough or smart enough to appreciate Hemingway’s skill. Then I got to the scene where El Sordo and his guerrilla band were trapped by the Fascist soldiers and for me, that’s when the pixie dust finally took effect. It was as if I was tucked behind a dead horse with my head down right next to El Sordo on that hill. At the time, I didn’t understand why that scene gripped me so much, and I had to find out.

Even though there were less than a hundred pages left in the book, I stopped after that scene and went back to page one and began reading the book all over again. I realized that up until then, I had read the words but only superficially. In the course of reading it again, more slowly this time, and with more effort to appreciate, I realized what made Hemingway’s story so meaningful. He had infused into his story his skillfully crafted and honest observations about life, friendship, love, loyalty, and courage. His characters were real people, complex, flawed, and struggling together within the universal human condition. And though at that time, I had never been to Spain and knew almost nothing about Spanish history, I could tell by the details he inserted into his story that the canvas, set in the mountains of Spain during the Spanish Civil war, was authentic. In other words, he wrote something true even though it was fiction. And to this day, the memory of that experience has never left.

Now, I constantly look for that experience again in the books I read. And sometimes I find it, even in thrillers.

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