The Truth in Fiction ~ Notes on a Work in Progress

An extract from the talk scheduled for October 25th

In an earlier draft of the novel I’m working on, I wrote a scene in which the daughter in the novel is given a suitcase that contains her father’s papers. I edited this out because it seemed too contrived, only to receive a phone call from my stepmother a few weeks later saying that she had a suitcase which contained my father’s papers, and she thought I should have these.

I remembered then, belatedly, that yes, of course there was a real brown suitcase, one my father had kept in the storage nook above the linen press, and that the case had been kept locked at all times. If you want it, my stepmother said, it’s yours.

After he died there was some concern as to the whereabouts of this case. Those he’d been closely involved with wanted the contents that related to them, or rather, did not want these contents falling into the wrong hands. Everyone wanted to be there when the suitcase was finally found and opened, so that they might lay claim to what was inside. For a while there was much talk of this, until it was forgotten. At some point the suitcase ceased to be mentioned and I didn’t think of it, in any way, until it appeared anonymously in my novel, and then in real life, when I drove home with it in the back of the car.

The suitcase dates from the 1960’s: it is dark brown and made from a material that looks like pressed metal with lighter brown pin stripes carved into it. The clasps are rusted, and only one closes properly. There would have once been a leather handle, but this also broke long ago, replaced by a temporary wire handle now snapped at one end. It is a relatively small suitcase; it looks as though it ought to be light. But when I picked it up I was surprised by the weight; there were meant to be only papers in there. A wave of something like dread swept through me.

I work in a studio at the bottom of my garden, and in this hut is a large, green velveteen armchair. I carried the suitcase from the car and pushed it behind this chair. But even out of sight, its presence bothered me. I felt like I had my father in the room. I kept stopping what I was doing to get up and go and look at the suitcase. I would stand over it with my arms folded and watch it as if it were an animal about to leap at me. Only when I could be sure that it hadn’t moved, and was just as it was the day before would I go back to my work. It was summer, the garden was growing wild. A green tendril of vine pushed its way up between the wall and skirting board. One day, when I went to check on the case, I found the green vine had wrapped itself all around. Spiders had built cobwebs.

Perhaps another person’s instincts would have been to open this case immediately – to set out to make a discovery. And I did think, at first, when I went to collect it, that this was what I would do: that I would be such a brave and reckless person.

But I had never been allowed to open it, scarcely to touch it, in all my life. I did not know it as something openable. Before the suitcase came into my possession I could only remember it as a closed and hidden object. My father, in general, had never been one to open things: he did not open birthday gifts on his birthday, nor Christmas gifts at Christmas, nor his mouth to smile for a photograph. He had in fact been known to keep a Christmas gift for a whole year, until the following Christmas, before finally deciding to open it. The object hidden in the wrapping was beside the point. To open the gift was to destroy what he found most pleasure in; the secrecy, the muted curiosity about what was inside, the beauty of the wrapped object. Opening it would simply be a deflation of all this suspense, an end of desire, and there was the common risk, not unwarranted, that the gift would simply disappoint.

There was some pleasure to be found in thinking similarly, that I too was not obliged to open this suitcase, simply because it had been given to me. I could, if I so wished, leave it closed my whole life. Only, the novel I was and am working on – which centres around a fictionalized version of my father and my relationship with him – had, at the time when I inherited the suitcase, reached a hiatus.

I was stuck and looking for clues. The narrative had stalled. I did not know how to develop the “character”, as such, who was based on my father, I felt uneasy with this very term, I couldn’t decide on the balance between truth and fiction. I was unsure whether I needed to know the truth – as in the facts of my father’s life and family – in order to create a version that I would then call fictional, or whether I could go off the back of my own my memories, and let this material suffice.

If I opened the suitcase, I told myself, I might find the answer I needed. I might find a clue, a link, a secret, something to explain the life I was combing through by memory and anecdote. In the course of my deliberations, I convinced myself that when I opened the suitcase I would absolutely and without a doubt find an answer so incredibly brilliant, so unexpected, that it would simply knock me out.

So convinced, I pulled the suitcase from its hiding place, sat down before it and pressed the small button on the side of the rusted clasp. Papers spilled out. There were his school reports, poems he’d written at university, rejection letters from literary journals, love letters to my mother, letters from friends addressed to his dead brother, a set of appointment slips from Sydney University listing his brother’s appointment times with the counseling service, and so on. I rifled through these, looking for I don’t know what: a diary perhaps, a suicide note.

I was like a clichéd character in a novel, or had the hopes of one. I dug my hands deeper into the case, there were objects at the bottom, beneath the papers, a rustling of plastic. There, in the corner of the case lay a small pink velvet box, of the kind you might keep a ring in. I took this out, opened it, and being the clichéd character which, in that moment, I was, I expected jewels.

The box hinged open, and I let go of it as if it were a hot coal: inside lay a swatch of dark hair. Then, beneath this, was a plastic bread bag containing a stack of envelopes. I took this out, emptied it: on each envelope was a list of detailed descriptions of camera, lens type, aperture, and inside each envelope were a set of meticulously wrapped photographic negatives. They were wrapped in toilet paper, kitchen paper towels, tissues, old thin Christmas wrapping. I transferred these envelopes to a shoebox, and the next day delivered them to a camera shop for developing.

Stephanie Bishop‘s first novel was The Singing, for which she was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. The Singing was also highly commended for the Kathleen Mitchell Award. Her second novel, The Other Side of the World is published by Hachette Australia and Tinder Press (Headline, UK) and will be released in the US in September 2016 by Atria (Simon & Schuster). It is the winner of The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2015, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016, The Indie Book Awards 2016 as well as being longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. It is also on the shortlist of the 2016 Australian Book Industry Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Stephanie’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Australian, The Sydney Review Of Books, The Australian Book Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is a recipient of two Australia Council New Work Grants, an Asialink Fellowship, an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship, a Varuna Mentorship Fellowship and Varuna Residency Fellowship. She holds a PhD from Cambridge and is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. In 2016 she will be a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Life Writing at the University of Oxford. Stephanie lives in Sydney. She tweets at @slb_bishop 

Photo by Lizzie Guilbert (CC0 1.0)

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