Friday, May 19, 2006

Fictionalising Family

You're writing a story which is based on your family history: how much can you change and invent? This question that came up a couple of times in my class at British Council last night, when my participants were sharing work they'd written.

The reader of course doesn't have a clue where fact ends and fiction begins, but the writer might well have a family unhappy to let those skeletons out of the cupboard to walk in the sun.

I know of one local writer who has written a pretty good autobiography but he is too afraid of what his relatives will say to put the thing before the public. (This is a great pity, becasue it's certainly the best thing he has written.) Instead he mines his material from time to time for short stories which he passes off as complete fiction.

Anyway, I promised my writing group that I'd paste up a link to this article which shows how one novelist has resolved the dilemma for herself.
As ideas go, basing a novel on one's family history has, at first sight, a pleasing simplicity: the ready-made cast of characters, the bare bones of a plot. But I soon discovered that there were other issues which make the process far more complex than I could have imagined.
writes Louise Doughty in the Independent. Her novel Stone Cradle is based on the life of her romany gypsy forebears. She first of all faced the problem of naming her characters:
If you use the real names along with real events then what, precisely, makes your novel a novel? The fact that you have made up bits you couldn't find out about, or elided over anything awkward? The beauty of your prose? Many a memoirist has done as much. But a memoirist is entitled - even obliged - to say in places, this much I am only guessing at. This much I could not know. A novelist has no such excuse.
She decided that she would change names, which she felt gave her greater freeedom:
... to invent where I could not discover and to explain discoveries that did not suit my invention in whatever way I saw fit.
But, she cautions:
A family history is never your history alone. It is collective. It belongs to a whole set of people, many of them still alive, and however respectful you try to be of other people's opinions and feelings, there is no getting away from the fact that when a history is written down, there is a sense in which that becomes the authorised version, simply because it is a version which can be read by strangers.
All's fair in love and fiction, I'd say!

By the way, if Louise Doherty's name and picure look familiar, it's probably because you are following her excellent A Novel in a Year column in the Telegraph.


Chet said...

Another graduate of the University of East Anglia's Creative Writing programme! They are everywhere!

Jordan said...

I've been thoroughly researching my family history (as many branches as I can find) for more than 15 years and have found plenty of good ideas for characters and stories. Most of the people involved are long gone, but some of them are still living, or their immediate descendants yes, it would be tricky to use them and their stories in fiction. I've got a few ideas in my head, and lately I've been thinking about the name-changing thing. It's a good idea.

Sharanya Manivannan said...

Thanks for this link, Sharon. Very interesting reading. Will definitely keep an eye open for the novel.

Oddly enough, I've never felt really obliged to honor the feelings of my living relatives -- in my fiction, I have killed off living grandparents without a thought (even when many other details corresponded to autobiography), and have raged against others in blatantly autobiographical poems. However -- the only time I had the kind of dilemmas that Doughty writes of is during the writing of a poem about a dead person. I was visited by the spirit of my great-grandmother, someone about whom little is spoken of in the family. In writing a poem about poem I was simply feeling my way in the dark, piecing the little bits I had previously known with the new knowledge that had taken root in my head following her visit.

In my novel, however, I grapple with the issues faced by Doughty for a different reason -- I write about the history of my country, not my immediate family. And it is tapping into this collective history and not being able to do it justice that scares me most.

Sharanya Manivannan said...

* In writing a poem about her I was simply feeling my way in the dark...

Lydia Teh said...

Thanks, Sharon. I'll have to change more than names, or my relatives will come after me, those who can read English, that is.

Yang-May Ooi said...

Hi Sharon

I've been following your blog for a couple of weeks and it's a great, informative read. I'm thrilled to see a creative writing space in Malaysia for local writers.

I'm a Malaysian-born writer based in London, with two legal thrillers published by Hodder & Stoughton, THE FLAME TREE and MINDGAME. The former is currently a core text in the SE Asian Literature module at Nanyang Technological University. My website is

The issue of writing about one's family is an interesting dilemma that I've grappled with. Do you wash your dirty laundry in public and gain fame and fortune - but at the expense of your family's love and loyalty? In any event, are those family stories yours to tell (exploit?)? The trouble is it's always the scandals and horrors that make the best stories! Perhaps the answer is to fictionalise and use a pseudonym...

I'm starting a series of posts on my blog Fusion View at about my family - specifically to do with how migration has spread my family all over the world. You may like to see my post At Home in the World at

Keep up the great blog and to all your writerly readers - keep up the writing: we need to see more Malaysian writers out there!
All the best,
Yang-May Ooi, Fusion View

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharon. I read some of the chapters at the newspaper website by this novelist. Quite ok.

BTW, I just QLRS. I guess their website has expired or is it some web error. It would be sad be they off the web.

Loved your Kunzru interview in the Star.


Jane Sunshine said...

If you have a very boring family then there's really nothing to excavatelah. Or maybe its just mine.

bibliobibuli said...

chet - trust you to point that out

jane sunshine - like you i don't have much family history to write about event hough my uncle has been tracing the family tree back ... we were boring peasant stock (wheelwrights, farm labourers, servants) ... though the character of hudson in the tv series 'upstairs downstairs' was based on my great-uncle's brother who was a valet to winston churchill

so i envy you jordan and the rest of you who can dig up colourful characters and great stories

sharanya - killing off relatives ... you sound like beryl bainbridge who siad she only turned to historical fiction when she'd killed off all her relatives ... and don't get scared kid, just write, you will do youir theme justice, i have every faith

lydia - yes, i've heard that the secret is to insert some little untrue and totally unflattering detail into the description so that they would be too ashamed to claim that it was them (i.e. if writing a nasty piece about an ex-lover you make a great fuss about him not being so well endowed ... who wants to stand up and say she's writing about me?)

yang-may - how lovely to meet you here! you were one of the first malaysian writers to get published in the UK - something that points the way for other malaysian writers - remember well seeing your novels stacked high in the bookshops here - very much enjoyed reading the last few entries on your blog and will send my course participants there ... thanks for your kind words too

zafar - hey hello! - i want to read doherty's novel because i'm so interested in romany history ... goodness, i hope it is just a temporary glitch with qlrs, it's such a valuable website for local writers