PASSING THROUGH TRUTH:
an interview with SJ Finn
Writers like James Frey have caused controversy by selling fiction as non-fiction. He lost agents and publishers — and millions had to be spent repairing reputations. David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs similarly publish only biographical work, though they use the apparatus of fiction and it’s doubtful that what they’re writing are ‘biographies’, strictly speaking. Other writers like Bukowski, Proust and Sebald again blur the boundaries between the biographical and fictional, yet their books are considered ‘novels’. The extremely brief bio at the start of your novel This Too Shall Pass and comparisons a reader might make with the blurb make this seem deliberate. I’m wondering how you feel about using fiction in our lives and our lives in our fiction.
The interconnectedness between truth and fiction is, for me, like the oil that keeps an engine lubricated while it runs. That oil may not be needed for ignition or the perpetuation of the running of the machine, but without it all working parts will seize. That is, of course, a very easy way to answer a very complex question, a question that goes to the heart of why we tell stories, to the fact that telling a story can create a better picture for its recipient than a factual manifesto of events. If you take a book like Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, there’s absolutely no one who would dare to say that the changing of a young man into a bug overnight isn’t fictional, but the book is absolutely saturated in truth about the young man’s relationship to his workplace, his family and the world beyond; quite similar, one might say, to the reality of Kafka’s life. As for myself I’m very prepared to say the whole deal is meshed together. I’ve found myself paraphrasing stories to make a point about life in conversations as if they’ve been the truth. I’ve also found autobiographical novels such as Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘My Father’s Moon’ and ‘The Georges’ Wife’ to be compelling reading because they are based on truth. We are intrigued by truth, we want it, but we like it more when it’s delivered in the digestible form that is fiction.
A ‘digestible form’ sounds brilliant, yet it makes me think about the way birds feed their chicks — digesting it for them and then regurgitating it into their mouths. Raw truth is everywhere we look but as soon as someone points a camera at it or sketches some of its details to paper, there’s already a process of ingestion and a preparation for expulsion. In between, there’s the experience of truth, which is the most valuable aspect of what we do in writing. To stretch that initial metaphor, it’s as though the bird does not simply nourish, but delivers maps of where she flew to find the food and how she felt flying there and back, where she paused along the way, what she saw and what it meant to her. So a whole sensibility comes along with the nourishment we get in literary truth. I know one of the vital elements of this for you is the political. Could you talk about the part this has played in your experience of the world and how crucial it has been in the composition of your novel, This Too Shall Pass.
I’m so alert to the political aspects of life it’s hard for me to leave them out of a story, especially one that’s written so directly on the page such as This Too Shall Pass. When, at her core, the central character of this novel alters, so too is she forced to see that the world around her isn’t the place she’d always imagined it to be. Sometimes finding it dumbfounding, sometimes hurtful, the action in the novel is pared down to drill home the inconsistencies of what’s in front of her. Like Alice in Alice In Wonderland – despite the hallucinogenic quality of what Alice sees down the rabbit hole – Jen Montgomery has to complete a journey through a myriad of experiences she would not have otherwise encountered had she remained in the mainstream so to speak. Most of us, if we happen to fit within the cushioned margins, don’t believe there is such a thing as discrimination. Even when we hear it, unless we’ve got the map to read it with – the language, the experience of a similar thing – we often can’t decipher it. When people fit into norms, and for the most part they grow up not knowing they are the privileged who do, they are reticent to accept the experience of the outsider, which is a sad indictment on the individual and how our systems are organised to reflect that view. It is also an indictment we should rage against.
As for my own experience, being a gay woman and a social worker has meant that I see discrimination and prejudice on a daily basis. There’s a certain sneer directed to those considered, for whatever reason, lower on the scale that’s extremely ugly to see on the faces of people who view themselves as superior. I want to raise a finger to them but I’m sorely aware that that urge comes from anger which carries the tide of sadness and humiliation, sometimes for myself and sometimes for others. To raise a finger, while it might be fitting and while I might have done it from time to time, is not going to change the cultural landscape of our still narrow paradigms, paradigms on which our so-called progressive societies run, and, which, more importantly, feed back into our knowledge of who we are. Writing about those things fills some of those gaps.
Your idea of ‘filling gaps’ refers to that world we live in but there are ‘gaps’ within ourselves as well. We’re fragments of families, society, culture and history. All of us are incomplete and the writing of a novel is a way of putting some of those pieces together. So I’m wondering what effect the writing of This Too Shall Pass has had on you. You write of Monty’s transition from one state to another. Did you find a transition within yourself as well? Is that process now complete as you stand poised to release your first novel?
Transitions are never fully realised, I don’t think, until we’re in another state of transition about something else. Often we can only see then that something is over, that we’re not the person who was grappling with the concerns that took up our time back then. When I’d finished writing the first draft of This Too Shall Pass, which had occurred not over the course of a day, as told in the book, but over a very short period of about six weeks, I felt stronger as if for all the roller coaster upheaval a character can go through, upheaval driven often by the unconscious, there’s a calm that finally arrives. Not a perfect rounding off and tied up kind of feeling, but a spot to gather breath and look back, a spot to walk forward from. Because that’s essentially what transition is about, getting to a spot from which one can walk forward.