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The fiction in facts

By Lisa Hilton

A story is conditional – it is a matter of perception and might not always be, subliminally or even unwittingly, a reflection of its times

British author Evelyn Waugh, one of my favourite writers, once said that biography is the best way to learn the discipline of writing. I have wanted to write fiction for as long as I can remember, but paid heed to his advice and started out as a biographer. Despite having then proceeded to write historical non-fiction for a decade, I cannot recall a time when I wasn’t engaged with fiction – my relationship with it has been lifelong, whether through my own writing or that of others whom I greatly admire. And there are several other forms of art that have shaped the way I write fiction today – the visual arts, for instance, have inculcated in me an interest for inverting what I think I see. One of the things that interests me the most about paintings – when they’re good – is what they conceal more than what they reveal; what the artist chooses not to let the spectator see. When you create fiction, it is also as much about what you don’t put in, as it is about what you do. Given that I have written so much history, I have also been affected by the conditionality of historical narrative. I have understood that fiction is conditional, just as history is – there is no definitive version of your voice, or even that of your characters. I’m very interested, as a writer, in perception. I think this comes from being a historian as well as a lover of art. And finally, my fascination with libretto has taught me economy and precision of expression – one can say so many things in such few words!

The writer of a novel cannot be an ‘outsider’ – he/she would have to be on the ‘inside’, as it were, and to actually care about people and be interested in their lives.
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Modern fiction is out of step with what is happening in the real world – fiction is, in a sense, lagging behind reality. Mainstream academic discourse will, of course, state contrariwise. Post the Internet – although I don’t believe it is an invention nearly as profound as the printing press – the quantity of information we have access to, the way we process it, and its availability have been revolutionised. Conventional fiction publishing, however, has a certain protocol and etiquette that does not let it always be reflective of contemporary reality. Take the Modernists, for instance, such as Virginia Woolf. One can make a very interesting case for this: how modern were the Modernists? Woolf is, to me, an emphatically Victorian writer. To offer a more recent example, I’ve been a great admirer of Hilary Mantel for years. Before she was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2009, she wrote historical fiction, or historically-grounded fiction, and was never taken seriously even though what she was doing linguistically was far more progressive than her contemporaries such as Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. Mantel’s technical command over English prose is far ahead of its time, but the only way we can process it is by reading it as part of the past. Subliminally or at times unwittingly, fiction is indeed a reflection of its times, but this is more of a theoretical than a thematic argument.


Some young women who have read my first novel, Maestra, have told me that they find it uplifting, describing Judith Rashleigh – the protagonist – as inspiring and empowering. While I find this delightful, I hadn’t deliberately set out to have that effect. In Domina too – the second novel in the series – I set out to write a modern, and not a feminist, character. I think the fact that women writers, including myself, still get asked questions such as, “is your book feminist?” implies that there is still a long way to go for feminism. It will not have won until these questions stop being relevant.  I am a product of second-wave feminism, while Judith is a millennial and has grown up in a much more egalitarian world than mine. Perhaps she is less eager to confront what other readers would think of as feminist issues, and I think that makes her more realistic.


As a writer, your work being compared to that of authors whom you greatly admire, such as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, is extremely flattering because it implies that people like your books enough to compare them to something they have already read and loved. Whenever this happens, I can’t help but remind myself that I had never actually set out to write a thriller, or even erotica per se. I had simply set about writing a story I thought was quite funny, based on two of my earlier novels that had been rejected – by myself. It was meant to be a satire on the idea of meritocracy. And I chose art as a central plot point in my narrative. Would I have chosen to write about a woman physicist? Perhaps not, since I know nothing about physics and don’t think I could be convincing on the subject even if I did an enormous amount of research.


I have always had very little interest in writing for pleasure. I read for pleasure, but I don’t write for pleasure. Also, I find the idea that a lot of people have about writers as aloof people, rather odd. The writer of a novel cannot be an ‘outsider’ – he/she would have to be on the ‘inside’, as it were, and to actually care about people and be interested in their lives. I write because I am, perhaps, a little nosy. And I read because I love to read – one of my favourite novels is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and writers I go back to repeatedly include Marcel Proust, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford.


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