Fiction is said to have an independent existence in an author's imagination as the most relatable books are firmly grounded in the creator's reality. An expert panel at the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival explored whether a thinly disguised autobiography is a requirement for authenticity in a novel.
In the session "Writing about Writing", characterised by Pulitzer Prize-winning author of six works of fiction Andrew Sean Greer's humour and author Anita Nair's deep insights into writing, the point was discussed at length along with other salient aspects of the craft of fiction.
Writers are the protagonists for both Greer's recent novel "Less" and Nair's "Eating Wasps". However, the perspective of the two writers seemed contradictory.
Greer described his endeavour as an attempt to capture "the grand moments but also the small moments of a writer trying to make a living," and has a light-hearted take on life in general. In contrast, Nair said she explores the darkness that drives her protagonist-writer to suicide.
While Greer said that writing about a writer's life is "incredibly self-indulgent" and something he would do only once, Nair stated that she had to descend into "that excruciating set of circumstances" that would drive her to kill herself and immerse herself into the mindset of the protagonist.
Greer also recounted that many of the traits of his protagonist have taken on aspects of his personality. When an audience member asked him whether he was like a certain character in his book, he quipped: "I am trying to hide it all in fiction, and here you are all ripping it apart at the seams."
The panelists observed that readers and the media both tend to relate the experiences of the characters to the life of the author and often to extremes.
Perhaps the finest literary work that most captures the reader's imagination is when the writing is rooted in personal experience, yet does not directly convey that experience.
Greer described how he gathers material for his writing on his travels, but relies on actual things he has written down at that moment rather than merely on his memory.
"I didn't want to write some fantasy of other countries that American writers tend to do," he said of scenes written in various countries, adding that he had left out entire sections of his travels in Vietnam because it didn't suit the story.
In the same vein, Nair said, "I am drawing on reality."
She said she writes about Kerala because she understands the "psyche of the people" and can relate to them in a way she can't with people from other places.
That is the level of engagement with her subject and characters she requires. But subsequently, she described the final act of creation as a weaving together of all the disparate elements as in a "patchwork quilt". She said she decides at that moment what works and what does not.
This transformation of experience into fiction is a challenge and ultimately a pleasure, Nair noted.
She added that she switches between genres depending on the nature of the story and "because I need to make it exciting for myself".
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