From the festival programme:
The world is full of fascinating and important stories but setting real personalities on the page also presents challenges and responsibilities.
This event featured readings, discussion and Q&A with writers Alex Pheby, Shiromi Pinto and Matthew De Abaitua. It was chaired by Sam Jordison.
There are many ways of approaching the stories of people who existed. When choosing to write about them an author must decide how to present their interpretation. If interest is piqued, readers are likely to check for themselves what are regarded as known facts. In straying from these, or creating a story from what goes unsaid but may be suggested between the lines, an author is asking that the reader accept their version of events for what it is – a story. The blurring of fact and fiction happens everywhere a tale is told to an audience.
In 2019 Influx Press will publish Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto. This book tells the story of Sri Lanka’s first female architect, Minnette de Silva, and her relationship with fellow architect Le Corbusier. It is a tale of lost love, ego and affairs, charting the erosion of post-independence ideals as seen by two architects at different points in their careers.
Shiromi talked about her protagonist, de Silva, who came from a politically active family. They were wealthy, progressive, left leaning liberals and the girl grew up amongst a certain class of people including Gandhi and Nehru. On moving to London she mixed with the likes of the Gielguds and Picasso. de Silva met Le Corbusier after she returned to Sri Lanka, the first Asian woman to have become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was a pioneer of modernism in Sri Lanka yet when men adopted this style a decade later her contributions were eclipsed. Despite being successful and ahead of the curve she is remembered more for her relationship with a successful man rather than for her own significant achievements in her field.
Shiromi read to us from the prologue of Plastic Emotions, pointing out that the book is still undergoing editorial rewrites.
In the mid 1990s, 22 year old Matthew De Abaitua was hired by the newly divorced and in-demand enfant terrible of the British literary scene, Will Self, as his ‘amanuensis’, translated as slave at hand. Matthew lived with the writer in a remote cottage in Suffolk and helped with research and anything else needed. This was regarded as an exciting opportunity by the eager young man, fresh out of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He had worked as a security guard on the Liverpool docks to help fund his education and came to the role with a degree of naivity.
Will was ambitious. He realised that the media performance of himself affected how readers would accept his work. The book that Matthew has written about this time, Self & I, captures the 90s, the triangulations people make, and the compromises to progress their work.
The reading brought to life what sounds like a fascinating book.
Galley Beggar Press have recently published Alex Pheby’s second novel, Lucia, to critical acclaim. Lucia was the only daughter of James Joyce and her family subsequently tried to erase her from the public record. In doing so they have created a fascination with Lucia’s story. Lengthy biographies have been written as well as plays and histories. Alex wished to write into the spaces, to explore who gets to say what about who. In his story he explores the silencing of a silenced woman. He does not always go down the route current commentators on Joyce demand.
As if to prove his point on the sometimes controversial nature of his work, Alex read from the animal torture scene.
Sam asked the panel if they felt any anxiety about their depictions, if they felt any duty towards their subjects.
Matthew talked of the ethics of writing about a living person. He chose never to attribute anything to what may be going on inside Will’s head. When the manuscript of his book was complete he sent it to Will and it was returned within 48 hours! Had he said no to publication then Matthew wouldn’t have proceeded. Matthew told us that he was periphery to Will’s life, although Will had been key to him.
Shiromi granted herself a lot of freedom in interpreting de Silva’s life but tried not to do this with her architecture. This required much fact checking. She felt the struggle between writing as she imagined events to have played out and fitting this alongside known facts. In the end she wrote as she wanted.
Sam asked Alex where Lucia was in Lucia.
Alex didn’t know. If she exists in retrievable form then she exists in this book. Any evidence in literary form is questionable, including his. He took risks and was not always respectful. He mentions problems that others won’t acknowledge, as they pretend the rumours cannot be true.
Sam asked about lost moments and memory, of their time and our time.
Matthew pointed out that his story, although set not that long ago, was before the internet, Harry Potter, the abolition of the net book agreement. At author events back then a reading could last 45 minutes and the audience were expected to sit in respectful silence before each buying hardbacks and having them signed. Will wanted to disrupt the social order. With the advent of social media authors are expected to be nice, to ask readers to buy their books.
Shiromi talked about colonial idealism and the erosion of this, how the ideals of the new nation of Sri Lanka deteriorated.
The audience were invited to ask questions. The authors were asked if they felt less responsibility when writing fiction.
Alex commented that certain people are unwilling to understand that it is foolish for a critic to complain about the truth of an account. He suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction (I disagree but that is for another conversation).
The authors were asked if these fictions are required to have a relationship with fact, otherwise why use real names.
Shiromi told us that she is more comfortable writing a novel rather than a memoir. She wanted to write about a great story, perhaps to prompt others to look deeper. She also finds writing fiction more fun.
Matthew mentioned that this type of writing has been described as a thinly veiled portrait which he finds anachronistic. He prefers to name names, to offer a frisson between real and fiction. He used his own experiences to provide narrative but avoids imposing his thoughts on others.
The authors were asked if they agonised over the points of view used.
Alex talked of the many shifts of voice and grammar in addressing the reader. He asked himself: what do they want to find out and why; what does this mean about the reader. All writing is fictive. What differs is the edges, the bleeding in and leeching out of realities.
Shiromi explained that point of view shifts throughout her tale. She did what she felt was necessary to tell the story of an intriguing character.
Matthew wrote in the present tense as he chose to exclude hindsight. He experienced this period as a younger version of himself, one who didn’t understand much of what was going on at the time. He wished to avoid a reinterpretation.
And with that the event was out of time. The authors moved towards the shop to sign any books purchased. My daughter and I were provided with much to discuss, especially around how certain authors can appear to regard their readers!
Click on the covers to find out more about the books, and do please consider buying them.