Mirrors of Black Type

Author Rosy Thornton talks to The View From Here about her book Hearts and Minds and on the perils of her colleagues seeing themselves in her fictional characters.

Write about what you know. It seemed like good advice for a new author, but I worked my way through three novels (one published and two under the bed) before I tried acting upon it myself.

What I mainly know is Cambridge colleges, having been a Fellow of two different ones for the past twenty years. And in many ways Cambridge was an obvious thing to write about. I grew up reading my father’s old C.P. Snow paperbacks, and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (although set in another place) was also a favourite of mine. Colleges make an excellent setting for a novel: small, claustrophobic and riddled with internal tensions, the university campus is a well-established forum for drama, just like other closed worlds from the hospital ward to the corridors of Whitehall. The college precincts give the narrative a natural focus and containment; the rhythm of the academic year gives a pattern to its timeframe.

So why did I put it off for so long? Precisely because colleges are small places. As I put it in an e-mail to my agent when first tentatively embarking on the project, ‘Everyone I know will think it’s about them and never speak to me again, and I will be either fired or sued or both in short order.’

I went ahead anyway, with what became Hearts and Minds. I constructed a fictional college, St Radegund’s: a nineteenth century foundation for women students and very clearly not modelled on any existing institution. I based nobody in the book upon anyone I knew. The central scenario for the book – a women’s college appointing a man as Master – is something which has never happened. So I should have been all right - shouldn’t I?

Alarm bells ought perhaps to have sounded when, on first reading the manuscript, my agent (who should know better) said, ‘I didn’t know you could cook like that, and speak Italian.’ This is something the novelist has to get used to: the attribution of our characters’ interests, traits and aptitudes to ourselves. (I am thinking of writing a novel in which the female protagonist reads Aristotle in the original Greek, plays concert violin and has climbed Everest without oxygen, on the basis that all my friends will automatically assume that I can also do those things.)

So now that the book is out, have I been ostracised, as I feared? Well, certainly not that – my colleagues have been very supportive, and mostly use it as an opportunity for gentle ribbing – but there has been a tendency to treat the book as a mirror. A former colleague of mine who moved away to a Chair in London wrote to me, upon reading the novel, saying, ‘I don’t remember us being that conflicted’. Of course we weren’t, I wanted to shout. But conflict is the stuff of fiction, and this is fiction. That means I have made it up! She also said that whenever I mentioned the topography of St Radegund’s it brought her up short - because otherwise she was picturing it as our old college.

I gave the new Master of St Radegund’s a past as a BBC executive. A faculty colleague here assumed this must be a reference to a particular former Cambridge Master who had previously worked in television – but at the same time an Oxonian friend was equally sure it must be about a current Oxford head of house who also has a media background.

I think it’s human nature, when reading a novel, to look for resonances in our own lives. We look for people and situations we recognise; it’s how fiction shows us things about ourselves. Maybe within the context of a university community the effect is more striking, but I suspect it’s true of all fiction. Whatever authors choose to write about, you may be sure of one thing: readers will always read about what they know.

Photo Credit: RomanLily


Phillipa said...

Fascinating article Rosy. You are fortunate however, not be writing romance as I am. The assumptions people make about your characters and their actions are slightly more of the nudge nudge wink wink variety.

It all gets very tedious.

Paul Burman said...

The relationship between reader and text is fascinating, Rosy, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way you've explored aspects of this here. Thanks for a thought-provoking and interesting post.

Stella said...

Very entertaining!

You can also see the assumption that a book is biographical in screenplay adaptations, which have the author supposedly narrating, e.g. Jane Austen in voice-over or something like that.

kathleenmaher said...

It's odd that people do that, although I know they do. Conversely, when people publish memoirs or political histories everyone reads them looking for "fabrications."
The truth is apparently both absolute and absolutely subjective.