Last week I talked about reality checking me about torture and secret prisons in Thailand, When Reality Checks You: Torture and Secret Prisons.
Writing fiction is connecting the imaginative and the real world in such a way that the fiction is as large and real as life. When contemporary affairs figure into the narrative, there is serious risk of the central events in the book being overtaken by actual events in the real world. In other words, you can end up with a premise that has been blown out of the water. A reader who follows the news will at that point stop reading what you’ve written. You’ve lost all credibility and the story falls apart.
Either what you imagined didn’t happen or happened in quite a different way than you supposed. I call this the risk of reality checking you; when that happens it is like a body check against the boards in hockey. Everyone groans from the pain inflicted.
Sometimes, though, you have the strange feeling that what you’ve written is an advance from the future and a news story confirms what you suspected was happening and no one wanted to publicly talk about (like secret prisons in Thailand).
Reality has checked me in a big way once before. In Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, the third Calvino novel, the premise was the recovery of a large cache of jewelry stolen by a Thai servant who worked in a Saudi Arabia palace. The jewelry heist had a lot of [people in???] prison in the early 1990s not to mention that it had a substantially adverse impact on international relations between Thailand and Saudi Arabia. In Zero Hour, I imagined a backstory that launched Calvino’s investigation into the missing jewels in Phnom Penh.
In the years since that book was first published (1994), I have had many readers ask how I know what happened to the missing jewels. Each time I explained that I had no idea what really happened to the missing jewels beyond the press speculation, and that Zero Hour was a work of fiction. That explanation cut no ice with the locals, who politely nodded, and said, “But how did you know what happened to the jewels.”
That was the first book that convinced me that wall between fictional and non-fictional worlds is less fixed in the minds of most people. Reality is often messy, incomplete, contradictory, and threaded with holes where information is twisted or missing. Fiction brings motive, meaning, rationality and closure. That’s why readers return time and time again to fiction. Events in the real world seem permanently hanging in shadows surrounded by smoke and noise.
So far the Missing Saudi Jewel caper remains shrouded in mystery. It remains to this day unresolved. If it is ever resolved, I suspect it will be quite different from the resolution I wrote about in Zero Hour.
I still get readers who after I explain that scenario in Zero Hour in Phnom Penh was fiction, reply, “Yes, but how did you know what happened to the Saudi jewels.”
Reality is a great teacher of humility. Stray too far away from the actual experiences of people, and you break the bond between author and reader; one that is built on trust. The author’s promise: trust me, this is a story that will provoke, entertain, and inform. Reality won’t kick the stool out from under you and leave you swinging slowly in the wind.