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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The family in fiction – or is it the other way around?

Us and Them, my new novel, is due out in August. Asked what it’s about I say, a family. Before I can utter another word I’m asked if it’s about my family. No, it’s fiction actually, I reply, slightly jolted as always that so many people still cling to the belief that a writer cannot possibly choose to write about anything outside of his or her personal experience.

They have a point, of course: the proper answer is probably yes and no. Yes, because any piece of writing is bound in some way to reflect something of the writer; not necessarily personal experience but certainly observations and areas of interest. Books such as The News from Paraguay and The Tenderness of Wolves, both strikingly authentic, were written in libraries; neither Lily Tuck nor Stef Penney, both clearly passionate about their subject matter, had ever visited the locations in which they chose to set their novels.

As a writer of fiction, the settings of my books may be familiar to me, but it’s still the ‘no’ that is more significant: the ways in which my writing diverges from my life experience. How many different lives there are – and each of us gets only one!

So for me it’s the path not taken: the risks and revelations that venturing into unlived, imagined lives may bring, and securing a hidey-hole for myself among them that may not be comfortable. And then, even more daring, adopting them: sculpting from outlines people that – if I do my job well – will stand up and walk alone, think alone, make decisions and choices which influence their lives and those of their families; and ultimately have little to do with their creator.

It’s those differences from my life that intrigue and challenge me, that motivate me again and again to engage with the unknown and perhaps the unknowable; to eavesdrop lives that may be more intensely lived or outwardly mundane or mysterious, abstruse, hidden. And it’s a privilege to take readers on that journey with me.

Is fiction therefore a form of displacement for writers? Maybe. Not always… Take family life, take children: they are the source, the essence of our most intense emotional connections and experience, yet in the literature of the greats children are seldom admitted. Perhaps they dismantle the enigma, the romance. Shakespeare’s children vanish after a phrase like ‘I have given suck’; Jane Austen, the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, Katherine Mansfield – the list goes on, all women, yet not a single child features in their novels. Dickens, who loves and victimises his children to make a point about the society he lives in, in the end romanticises them in the interests of the fairytale ending his readers expect of him. Lord of the Flies is the exception, though it is essentially a novel about human nature.

Later, Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing do build novels around children, and since them, of course, much has changed. Family, and childhood in particular, have become enormously popular subjects of memoir and autobiography, and the driving force – and the face – of fiction. (Although several prize-winning, mostly male, writers continue to cherish the character of the loner trapped in a hostile world rather than choosing to explore as well the family who raised such an individual.)

The only surprise in this is that it took as long as it did. Particularly for fiction. Family – parents and children and what lurks in the genes and in the home – is probably the broadest and deepest area to mine in all of literature, not least because as with two individuals, no two families are alike. The possibilities are endless; exploring them is like tracing a vein of gold that may or may not take one to the source.

And it doesn’t matter. It’s the diversity of the journey, the treasures to be unearthed enroute that are the beating heart of every story. Families are complex and elusive, bristling with secrets and half-buried rivalries; and this writer, for one, is incapable of turning her back on such riches; has no choice but to offer those families and their potential a room of their own in her home. No matter that there will never be safe or stable ground beneath her feet.


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