Sunday, October 14, 2012
The Truth about Fiction
Amazingly, Ms. Tuohy did not experience the War first hand: you’d not think that from her narration.
– Robert Knightly
They all were a variation on the same theme: The setting, the characters were mesmerizing, spellbinding, couldn't-put-it-downable. So why didn't they want to buy my book? Because the story didn't work.
I had a hard row to hoe, to figure out how one makes fiction real, breathing of life, yet … what's that extra magic ingredient? At one point, my novel, published this month as "The Five O'Clock Follies," was called "How the Weather Was." I guess I'm into obscure titles, no one knows what "Follies" means either. That's what the reporters in Saigon called the 5 p.m. daily press briefings held there by the military. The "Weather" title came from Hemingway: "All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened … the people and the places and how the weather was."
That's what I was trying to do: Let the reader get a feel, know what it was like to be under fire one minute and drunk at the Continental Bar the next. How the weather was for an unsung hero with notebook and pen or camera. Someone who wasn't drafted, could go home whenever he or she wanted, but was inexplicably there anyway.
I journeyed to a writers workshop one summer at "Sewanee," the University of the South, because Tim O'Brien (“Going After Cacciato”) was there. I didn't find my answer to what was wrong with my "story," but did get a pink T-shirt with an O'Brien quote printed in black on its back: "Just because it never happened, doesn't mean it isn't true." He later said that he never said that, or was misquoted, or something, but I've still got the T-shirt. And am still trying to puzzle out how to answer the question of what is "true" fiction. I think I've learned the answer in my bones, or typing fingers, perhaps, but still not at all clear how to articulate it.
"Follies" is totally historically accurate. The reporter in me made sure of that – the date of every battle, the number of bullet holes in the fuselage of a C-130 limping back from the siege of Khe Sanh, the view from the window of the Givral Cafe across the street from the Continental Hotel. I still have the creased and crumpled copy of a map of 1968 downtown Saigon. I photocopied it from "Big Story," a 529-page tome published by Yale University Press written on a grant by a former newsman, Peter Braestrup. He basically set out to document that the press had caused the loss of the war for the U.S. by overreacting during the Tet Offensive. I didn't realize until sometime later that I was reading the abridged version. Gad, one can only imagine how detailed the two volumes must have been.
I only point this out as documentation that I very well did my research. I read everything I could get my hands on about the war. Strange thing, no one had written fiction about the press and what their daily lives were like. The fiction was all written by grunts, by GIs. The press detailed their experiences as memoir, or reporting. If nothing else, I have filled a hole, a fictionalized account of those undocumented scribes. When I finally travelled to Vietnam some years later to double check my research, I had a bit of a set-to with a guide. When he pointed out what he said was the Opera House, I blurted out without thinking how rude it sounded: "No, that's not the Opera House, it's the National Assembly building." Fortunately, we'd been touring together for several days, and he knew my mission, and just laughed. "You might be right," he said, "that's probably what it was in 1968. But I'm too young to remember."
One critic, Charlene, said: “I had a hard time believing this was a fictional book, as the writing and detail were so great."
I've heard it said that you can't teach talent, I don't know about that. But it's clear to me that it took a long time for me to learn what makes a news "story" different from "true" fiction. I've since finished a second novel and begun a third. It feels like I've finally grasped the concept.