Alex Miller warns literalism in novels should be avoided. Photo: Jay CronanIf you’re going to write fiction, you had better get your facts straight. This is the creed of multi-award-winning Australian novelist Alex Miller, whose books are peppered with people he knows, and historical events he has read about. They are set in places he has visited. When he was an honours student at Melbourne University in the 1960s, he took a course called The Theory and Method of History. In studying three different accounts of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, the students were challenged with the idea that written history could be as elastic as fiction.
In Canberra earlier this month to give a lecture to University of Canberra students, Miller says he has often considered the authenticity of his own writing in this context, even while he invents storylines.
“History – or historiography – is often held up as about the facts of history, whereas fiction is held up as ‘it doesn’t matter because it’s not true’. It matters absolutely if fiction is not true,” he says.
Readers must be able to recognise the places he’s writing about – and recognise themselves if he has based characters on them. If they don’t, he has failed, because anyone who has ever stumbled across a factual error in a novel will know how quickly the book’s authenticity can dissipate.
“Writing a novel is an act of faith, absolutely, and you’d better get your facts right,” he says.
“And that doesn’t mean to say you’ve got to be earnest about it, and god forbid you’re literalist about interpreting the spirit of what you’re doing.”
His 1992 novel, The Ancestor Game, is partly set in China, where it is still in print, in two different translations, and is taught at various universities there. Miller recalls once being set upon by a Chinese professor of Australian studies, who demanded to know how he could possibly know “the smell of duck shit in Hangzhou in 1932”.
“I said, ‘Well I didn’t, but you did – it was already up your nose, and you were there, apparently.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was there! I was a boy!’ “
In writing the book, Miller had refrained from describing such a smell in too much detail. “What to leave out is critical,” he says. ”That there was the smell of duck shit, that ducks were kept and allowed into a courtyard … I knew about such things because I did a bit of reading, I’d had some experience, and I certainly knew the smell of duck shit. I think the smell of duck shit in 1932 in Hangzhou is the same as the smell of duck shit today, pretty well, if it’s in an enclosed space especially, because the ammonia fume goes straight up your nose. So I left that to the reader because with fiction, and with history, if you don’t allow the reader’s imagination to play its part, the book will be boring and they will put it aside.”
Factual is key, but literalism is to be avoided at all costs – a killer, he says, in all the arts. Fiction should only be limited by the human imagination, and how can we begin to be literal about something so ephemeral?
That history he read so many years ago – William Prescott’s “definitive” account of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, for example – isn’t made any less enjoyable by having been overtaken by later events.
“It’s contributed to the conversation, and it’s not the truth,” Miller says. ”It’s a version of what happened, and novels are a version of the intimate lives of us.”
After all, he says, no one reads War and Peace to find out who won the Battle of Borodino, but Tolstoy still had to do his homework, lest readers lose faith in his work.
“Those sorts of things are so important in my life, that the people I write about recognise themselves in what I write,” he says.
“If you write about somebody and they read the book and they know that the character they’re reading about is based on them and they find it awkward, strange and untrue, that would be terrible. It hasn’t happened yet.”
So it’s not for him, that writer’s rule of masking their characters lest they be recognised?
“I don’t have rules like that because I think other people do different things,” he says.
“I’m not trying to tell anybody how to write novels. I know what I do, and what I do is I write about people and places I love. I write about them as novels, and I’ve given my life to them and I respect it more than anything. I think it’s an honourable thing to do if you do it honourably. The imagination of the reader is as least as important as the imagination of the writer, and what to leave out, like the smell of duck shit or the attempt at that point to say what that smell was actually like … As soon as you make a rule of it, somebody writes something witty and wonderful about the smell of duck shit that does say exactly how it is, so there are no rules. It’s an old rule, isn’t it? There are no rules.”
Alex Miller’s 11th novel, Coal Creek, is due out in October, published by Allen and Unwin.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.