Reading between the lines
“I do a great deal of research - particularly in the apartments of tall blondes.”
- Raymond Chandler
A colleague of mine recently remarked that she felt she “got to know me better” after reading my first literary crime novel, The Weight of Stones. It got me thinking about what we look for, and what we find, inside the pages of a book. I know as a reader myself, I can't help but wonder which parts of a novel are based on personal experience, and those which are entirely imagined. This is especially true as we become a 'fan' of a particular writer. As we learn more about an author’s personal life, their background and experiences, we consciously or subconsciously try to connect the dots within the plots, the characters, the settings.
The novelist Mordecai Richler's relationship with his family was forever altered after he wrote Son of a Smaller Hero, a not so disguised and unflattering portrait of his father. Hemingway's disastrously horrible novel, Across The River and Into The Trees, was such a failure because the author was unable to disguise the fact that the hero was clearly supposed to be Hemingway - this bigger than life, hard-living macho man capable of luring a nineteen-year-old beauty despite the fact he is virtually on his death bed. We know, too, that James Frey stumbled badly into the strange domain of so-called 'creative non-fiction' when he embellished his prison record in A Million Little Pieces. (The embarrassment he suffered after appearing on the Oprah Show was likely soothed by the fact the resulting publicity rocketed the book to best-seller status.)
We are each the sum of our experiences, and so while I don’t buy the old maxim “write what you know” (which, for the most part, would make for really boring books), I do believe that - as my colleague indicated - we can get a glimpse into the secret heart of any author if we look close enough.
Hard-boiled masters like Raymond Chandler and David Goodis wrote about hard-edged men and women living lives of almost unbearable bleakness. Both writers were themselves suicidal alcoholics with more than their share of problems with women and life in general, and so, as Chandler‘s quote above clearly articulates: this writer truly understands the feelings and the motivations of his made-up characters; he’s walked in their shoes, at least to some extent. That neither of these writers ever actually worked as private detectives hardly matters. Their imaginations existed within the smoke-and-gin-haze of the milieu.
With respect to my own writing, it could be argued that the main character in The Weight of Stones and the just-released sequel, Slow Recoil, is not the stubborn former detective named Charlie McKelvey, but the city of Toronto itself. My fiction allows me to pay tribute to a city I adore. I love painting pictures of my favourite streets and neighbourhoods, like the Distillery District. Think of Robert B. Parker’s sweet rendering of Boston in his Spenser mysteries. Or Elmore Leonard’s love affair with seedy Detroit, Carl Hiassen’s sticky Florida. These writers felt such an obvious affinity for these places, they made them come alive with their smells and tastes and sights. Research on Google will only take a writer so far; I believe Rick Mofina writes about a journalist protagonist so expertly because, well, Rick worked as a high-level journalist for years. He knows how a reporter thinks, how one chases down a story.
All of my characters are products of my imagination, but they are ‘real’ in so far as they are amalgamations of many people I’ve known or perhaps observed over the years. The anti-hero in The Weight of Stones - a violent biker named Pierre Duguay - is a composite of several ex-convicts I met through ‘a friend of a friend’ several years ago. Over time, I picked up on their mannerisms, the way they talked and handled themselves, their general outlook on a life lived on the narrow margins. I didn’t need to rob a bank in order to appreciate what it must feel like as you wait in line with a note scrawled on a deposit slip, the anxiety of those last few seconds before the teller motions you forward, the handgun in your hip pocket weighing you down like an anchor …
At the end of the day, of course, we read to escape from the humdrum of our daily lives. We’d exclusively read non-fiction if we didn’t want at least a little ‘suspended reality’ in our novels. Too much cold research and fact can kill a good story. I guess it comes down to each writer and reader finding the right mix in that strange formula of research + imagination + personal experience + artistic license.Then again, as bestselling crime writer Michael Connelly once remarked when asked about the amount of research he conducts into law enforcement procedures: “I make most of it up.”
C.B. Forrest’s first literary crime novel, The Weight of Stones, was short listed for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, and named a ’must read’ for 2009 by The Hamilton Spectator. His second novel featuring Charlie McKelvey is the just-released Slow Recoil. He lives in Ottawa where he is at work on a third and final instalment in the McKelvey series, as well as a new general fiction novel.
He can visited online at www.cbforrest.com
Tonight, C.B. Forrest launches SLOW RECOIL at Whisper's Pub,249 Richmond Rd, Ottawa at 7:00 p.m. Join in the fun!