Fiction’s fascinating, frightening shades of grey

Thursday, June 9, 2016
Laura Jean McKay interviewed by Michelle McLaren

A portrait of Laura Jean McKay
Laura Jean McKay

Writing fiction based on real people or events can be complicated, but don’t dismay - author Laura Jean McKay’s upcoming The Ethics of Using Real Stories in Fiction workshop will help you untangle all your ethical issues. WV volunteer, Michelle McLaren caught up with Laura to ask about the ethics of storytelling.

What are some examples of ethical concerns writers of fiction might face?

Writers of fiction have a freedom that non-fiction writers don’t have. As long as we market it as fiction, we can write whatever we want - right? This makes for some pretty interesting ethics. I’ve met some people who are so concerned with ethics, they try to make everything up (although I would argue that that’s impossible) and refuse to tell even their own stories; while others have the “stand on your own Grandpa” attitude to writing - that everyone’s story is up for grabs. I love exploring the frightening, hilarious and sometimes shocking grey area that fiction writers inhabit in terms of ethics. Are we allowed to write about other people? What about stories from different sexes, cultures, abilities, incomes and age groups? How can privilege be taken into consideration? How can we push ourselves to create fiction that challenges ours and other peoples’ assumptions about the topic or subject we’ve chosen? As fiction writers, is it even our responsibility to think about ethics? Should we stick with being entertainers?

In your experience writing about real events, people and places in fiction, how have you made sure you're getting the facts right - and is it important?

People ask me how much of my fiction writing is based on my life and experiences and I say, “All of it. And none of it”. There’s a lovely note in the dedication of ‘The Quiet American’ in which Graham Greene explains to his two friends that he has changed important facts to tell the story. In fiction, interiority and the experiences of the characters and the reader become more important than the facts. If there is an explosion and you write non-fiction about it, you need to get the time and place right, or there’ll be trouble. In fiction, the explosion can be experienced and described in detail by the woman across the street, who ran in to help the survivors. Time and place become fluid - what’s important is how she tells it. If this story is based on truth, then as a fiction writer you enter the murky grey area of what your ethics are, and this can be surprising…

How do you view the divide between reality-based fiction and non-fiction?

The divide between reality-based fiction and non-fiction often comes down to marketing. There are some books that, for the sake of avoiding scandal, just should be put on the fiction shelf. Where it becomes really interesting is when the writers themselves come to a real story and need to make a decision about form. Am I going to put in the difficult work of recreating this story as a non-fiction piece, with all the fact checking, interviewing and piecing together of reality that this involves? Or am I going to fictionalise it, with all the effort of world creation, character forming and engaging journey-making, combined with fact checking and research? Both forms are difficult, and carry their own ethical baggage. The question, when making the choice, should be, what does this story need? How can I tell it in the best way possible? How can I be true to that story?

What are some examples of fiction writing that pushes the boundaries of ethics?

‘Under the Drops of Falling Rain’ by Oum Sophany is one of my favourite books. It’s written by a woman who made it through the Khmer Rouge with a secret diary, and this diary has since been translated into French and won many awards. But she has also fictionalised her story as ‘Under the Drops’. When I interviewed her about it, asking how much of the story was fiction, her eyes sparkled. She said, “You read it and tell me which parts are real”! It’s such a playful and clever way to write an otherwise horrific personal story, and so interesting for the reader to go through this journey with her in the book.

I also love fiction that gets everyone up in arms (as long as it’s not hurting anyone or appropriating another culture, and there are many examples of that). James Frey’s ‘A Million Little Pieces’ is a great example. It was marketed as memoir but apparently the story was highly fictionalised, and it caused a scandal. It really should have been sold as fiction, but I loved reading it not knowing what was truth and what was embellished or completely fictional.

Can you tell us a little about how you came to write 'Holiday in Cambodia'?

The first story I wrote for the collection came after I visited an all-female de-mining team as an aid worker in the west of Cambodia, and was trying to understand what I’d seen and heard. I’d asked one woman why she did that job and she said, “If I don’t do it, who will?”. The other people in the town were either children or men who had lost limbs from explosive ordinance. It was up to this team of women to de-mine their country. For me, it wasn’t so much what she said, it was the look in her eyes - a kind of terrified determination that I couldn’t even fathom, but that I wanted to write about. ‘The Lifted Brow’ asked me to write something for them, and the fictional story of a de-miner came out. The collection went on from there.

About Laura Jean McKay

Laura Jean McKay is the author of ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ (2013), shortlisted for three national book awards in Australia, including the Asher Award in 2015. Her work has appeared in ‘The Best Australian Stories’, 'Award-Winning Australian Writing' and 'The North American Review' and she won the Alan Marshall Short Story Award in 2011. Laura is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.

About Michelle McLaren

Michelle McLaren is a Writers Victoria volunteer, a Melbourne Writers Festival intern and an emerging literary critic. She blogs about books at Book to the Future and procrastinates on Twitter.