Thursday, August 21, 2008

The story behind the story: Condensed Metaphysics

Last summer I contributed to a series on John Baker's blog in which writers discussed the questions of 'inspiration' and the creation of texts. In doing so, I concentrated on the story 'Compass and Torch' which is included in my collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World.

That was then something of an exception for me, as I've always thought the focus should be on the words on the page, rather than all this meta-stuff which tends to feed into the current obsession with the author as part of the fiction package. Also I'm dead against the current tendency for biographical readings of fiction, and I've always thought that pointing to any real-life triggers for fiction - even if it's only to point out the differences between the life and the fiction - is to reinforce the obsession.

But then I'm writing a blog, after all, and I've written here about some of my writing processes even if, so far, I haven't really related them at the time to specific pieces. And after the publication of the collection I did get into one or two brief discussions on here about specific stories in the book which did touch on issues of creation/production, and now find myself drawn to continue these discussions and talk occasionally about issues of creation surrounding some of the stories in the book.

So here goes, with 'Condensed Metaphysics', the first story in the book.

This is the story of a group of people out on the town who end up in a pizza parlour where a comic drunken conversation with the other customers punctures a few preconceptions and leads to some pretty serious realizations. It begins like this:
We're all drunk and Ellie's drunkest. She runs up to a guy with a begging cup outside the Babylon and asks him to lend us some money, we're hungry and want a pizza and none of us has got any cash.

In fact (as I've indicated before), the publishing history of this story neatly sums up the pitfalls of being drawn to talk about the 'real-life' elements of fiction (which, paradoxically, makes it hard to discuss its publishing history without doing so!). As soon as I had written this story I sent it off to London Magazine, which was edited at the time by the now sadly deceased Alan Ross. This is perhaps an indication of my pig-headedness: I had sent occasional stories to Alan in the past, but although he usually bothered to be complimentary, he had never agreed to publish any, and though I had long come to the conclusion that my stories just weren't his kind of thing - well, let's just say my granny was pretty stubborn too. So I was delighted when he wrote back very quickly and said he had found the story very funny and wanted to publish it. And then he asked me was it fiction or fact, because if it was fiction then I would have a long wait for it to appear in the magazine, but if it was fact then he'd be able to put it in the reportage section at the back of the mag next issue.

That wiped the smile off, I can tell you. Fact? My carefully wrought and imagined story, with all those made-up conversations and characters, that product of my imagination, not a replication or account, but an artifice of images and a hammock of words swinging rhythmically, a constructed vehicle for my own individual vision and themes? Wasn't it obvious from the shape, the patterning, that it was a made up thing?

I don't mind admitting I had a moment's doubt about the story, and in order to explain I do need to admit here that it was indeed based - based - on a real-life incident, more closely perhaps than most of my stories. I considered the fact that I had included real-life place names in the story, something I usually consciously don't do since what I'm aiming for usually is something a bit less realist - more universal, or mythic, if that's not too pretentious. Had this given it a kind of cod 'authenticity', especially since Alan (if he remembered) wasn't accustomed to reading that kind of thing in my work? Or was it something deeper? I had certainly written this story very quickly, it had come to me the moment I had woken up the morning after the real-life incident, and I had polished it off that day, and it was indeed steeped in the atmosphere of the real-life event. And the prose rhythms of the story were also tied up with the real-life experience; they did seem to have emerged from the particular hilarity of that real-life evening.

But of course it was fiction, (those rhythms were my own after all, and the characters and their stories were my fabrication), and so important was it to me to have it acknowledged as such, that I was quite prepared to wait for a lengthy period before publication. I wrote back to Alan Ross and jokingly told him that he was right in guessing that it had been based on a real-life incident but there was no doubt that the piece was fiction.

Well, now, maybe I was too cryptic, maybe Alan Ross was so busy he missed the point of my letter: imagine my dismay when the story appeared in the very next issue as reportage, indeed as a kind of travel piece, under the umbrella title Chinatown.

Why Chinatown? Because, presumably, the chap with the begging cup at the beginning of the story is asked by the revellers where he sleeps at night; he replies that he sleeps in an alley in Chinatown and before they can say any more he embarks comically on a lecture about popular misconceptions about the dangers of Chinatown. But we never find out if his version of Chinatown is the right one, partly because the revellers quickly forget all about him and Chinatown as they go on into the takeway place to order their pizzas. Any Chinatown of the story is not the specific place which a travel piece must reduce it to, but a Chinatown of the mind. This is a story not about a specific place or any specific places (in spite of my naming) but about viewpoint and the isolation of everyone from each other's experience and stories. It's a story about stories rather than reality, indeed it's about the difficulty of ever really pinning down reality - hence its ironic title 'Condensed Metaphysics'.

Best not even to get involved in discussions about the real-life sources for fiction, I say.


Unknown said...

And one man's meat is another man's poison... thanks for the insight into the creation of, and indeed the reaction to, this story. You've whetted my appetite, E!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Barbara, thanks for dropping in!