Monday, December 10, 2012

Careful or You’ll End Up in My Next Novel

A T-shirt with a message of "Careful or You’ll End Up in My Next Novel" is a common sight at writers' conferences.

However, in the case of Angela Hargreaves, her own neighbors in Eccleshall, Staffordshire, are accusing her of skewering them in her erotic e-novel Rotten Row.

On Amazon, the book is described thusly: "[The story contains] tales of love, death, nostalgic regret, sexual encounters, romance, marriage, divorce and desperate times but ultimately how quickly our fortunes can and do change. [It] is about the petty spitefulness and complexity of living in close proximity to some neighbours."

The Daily Mail writes, "Authors often base their novels on their own experiences, over-heard conversations or eccentric characters they may have met throughout their lives." But as author Anne R. Allen writes, "I've tried to skewer a few real people in my fiction, but it never works. The character always takes over and makes herself sympathetic, and/or entirely different from the person on whom I tried to perpetrate my literary revenge." Even John Steinbeck admitted the impossibility, "I have tried to keep diaries, but they didn’t work out because of the necessity to be honest" to the character.

However, Hargreaves' neighbors see themselves in the steamy scenes and saucy characters. One person said, "...the book had caused 'major problems' and that there have been 'a lot of tears shed'. How would you like to live next to somebody who was writing things that were talked about in private into black and white? It is unreal."

Hargreaves is quoted by The Daily Mail saying, "The characters in Rotten Row are fictional and many of the things that happen in the book didn't happen at all."

As a counterpoint to this is this blog by Tamara Hunter on February 28, 2012. At the Perth Writers Festival this year, author Michael Sala said, "You have this terrible, terrible power as an author. You can literally take revenge on everyone if you want to. They’re all subject to how you design the story. You have got to be a little scared of that, I think." Sala's debut novel is The Last Thread, a fictionalized version of his own turbulent and secrecy-filled childhood.

Writer Rachel Robertson said that in her book Reaching One Thousand she "saw it as a mark of respect in a way to change the names. By using different names and being honest about them I am reminding the reader: ‘This is my take on this. This isn’t what really happened or the whole truth. This is my understanding’." Then again there's screenwriter, blogger and broadcaster Marieke Hardy, whose acerbic, voyeuristic, and entertaining memoir, You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead includes revealing stories about ex-lovers, passionate friendships, and a swingers’ party, said that "in her case, the decision to use real names felt more honest and honorable."

What ethics do you think should form the moral map for a writer?

[An interesting historical side note: Rotten Row was the area on the south side of Hyde Park in London where the fashionable young of the nobility rode decorously every morning in the Georgian and Regency period. It was also a fashionable place for upper-class Londoners to see and be seen during the afternoon promenade time.]