Where truth and fiction meet

I’ve done a lot of thinking about the concept of truth in fiction. After publishing When Cobras Laugh, my youngest son challenged me. When I explained that we had based the book on true incidents, he asked, “Then why not tell the true story? Because what you have now really isn’t true.”

I explained to him that although we have written a book of fiction, it contains truth. In fact, most fiction books contain truth, otherwise they would not appeal to so many readers. I have met many other people who reject fiction books because they can’t understand the concept that books or stories can contain or express truth when they have only a limited basis in fact.  

Philip Gulley has written a book entitled Home Town Tales, published by Walker and Company. In the preface, he discusses truth and fiction, or if you like, truth and storytelling. Gully’s description might help some to better understand the concept. He wrote:

“I am a storyteller, not a historian. History is about facts; stories are about truth. It’s important to know the difference. If I were a historian, every memory in this book would be precisely factual. Since I’m a storyteller, I don’t have to labour under that burden. Regrettably, we live in an age in which storytellers are suspect. Our search for truth has turned us into Pharisees who strain at gnats and swallow camels. I think truth comes robed in all sorts of garments.” He goes on to explain: “The stories in this book are true, if by ‘true’ you mean ‘honest to the human condition.’ If by ‘true’ you mean ‘cold, hard fact,’ then this book is not always true. I can’t always recall exactly what folks said, though the values they conveyed return to me crystal clear. I’ve changed some names, uprooted some folks and replanted them in my hometown, and once or twice made my life seem a little more interesting than it really is. Please forgive me, but that’s the kind of thing we storytellers do.”

I agree with Gully because I, too, consider myself a storyteller. I followed much the same facts-versus-fiction concept in my biography, A Difficult Passage. I did it in order to protect the identities of some people. Although that book contains mostly fact, it became necessary to alter facts in a few places to better concentrate on truth. The novel, When Cobras Laugh, centres on truth, but has a basis in fact. Incidents similar to those described in the book did happen to someone.

Many years ago I read Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach. It tells the story of a final war in which a cloud of atomic death moves southward until only a man and woman remain alive on the southern tip of Australia. They face certain death as the radiation approaches, wondering if their food supply will last until the end, and further wondering if it even matters. I think of them almost every time I take the last measure of oatmeal from the container or the last orange from the bin. That book influenced me for life. I have read that it had the same effect on world leaders, cooling their ardour as they contemplated using atomic bombs on each other during the cold war.

Although that book had no basis in fact, we did not have an all-out atomic war, it contained a powerful truth, the truth that an atomic war would destroy all mankind. 

If you are a storyteller like me, keep your facts straight, but don’t let them hinder the truth.



Ray Wiseman