Richard T Kelly – The lie that tells the truth: Fiction & Non-Fiction

Report of Richard T Kelly’s talk given to the Hampshire Writers’ Society on 12th October written by Sarah Noon

Richard T Kelly is a writer and lecturer at the University of Winchester.  He has also been an editor.  Friends would ask him, he says, how he could spend all day editing and then go home and write his own stuff.  “It seems very simple to me.  I’m just making things out of words and sentences.  If you’re a carpenter, you might make a table in the morning and a cabinet in the evening.  What’s the difference?”  Richard’s talk demonstrates how writing doesn’t need to be defined by the boundaries of its genre.  He expands on his view that fiction and nonfiction is “… playing vaguely in the same sandpit but something else comes out of it.” Adding, “It depends what container you pour it into.”

When Richard began writing, he had a desire to write true stories.  However, he “… wanted to tell them with some finesse,” rather than many history books which are simply “… one damn thing after another,” to coin a famous phrase.  He wanted to create something which was both factual and had some creative spark.  Richard goes on to say that, eventually, he wanted more.  “I wanted to express myself non-fictionally.” However, he says he soon realised he did not have any imagination!  He explains: “I have to believe that something is true or could have happened before I can fictionalise it.”  What Richard realised, however, was that he could use his nonfiction writing skills to create fiction.

So where does the title of Richard’s talk come from?  And how is it relevant to the relationship between fiction and nonfiction?  The lie that tells the truth is a phrase credited to Picasso  – and is often misquoted (Richard reminds us that many great writers such as Mark Twain and George Orwell are always being credited for things they didn’t say!):

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.  The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.  If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything.”

Richard suggests that Picasso is referring to something known as “poetic truth,” something Richard claims he is “… not qualified to expound upon.”  He tells us that the fabrication or elaboration of an event can sometimes feel stronger than the real thing (“It didn’t quite happen that way, but it should have.”).  He says that there is an artistry required to do this.  Picasso is warning against too much research and too many facts – again “… one damn thing after another.” And he claims “that doesn’t make for art. “

Richard then goes on to quote Jean Cocteau:

“I am a lie who always tells the truth.” (Poem, The Red Package)

He suggests that these two quotes together have morphed into the one that is often used, explaining that he “… pitches his tent between Cocteau and Picasso.”

Richard tells us that nonfiction is commonly referred to as creative nonfiction in universities and publishing houses, which suggests that there is creativity involved within the genre.  He then introduces us to some “legends” of creative non-fiction:

  • Gordon Burns: (Somebody’s Husband Somebody’s Son / Happy like Murderers) grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the 1950s &1960s. Burns wanted to move away from what was a bleak area at that time travelling to America to begin working for Rolling Stone magazine.  The writing style popular in America at this time was known as “New Journalism,” an example of this being “Armies of the Night” by Norman Mailer.  Mailer wanted to write about the Vietnam War, so he travelled to Vietnam, with a view of getting himself arrested.  He succeeded with this and proceeded to write about his experience.  Despite being a personal piece of writing, interestingly, Mailer refers to himself in the third person.  Richard describes this as a “remarkable” artistic device to use when writing nonfiction and prompts us to consider rewriting a personal diary or journal in the third person to explore the impact of this. 

Although uncommon in Britain at the time, Gordon Burns wanted to write in a similar way to Mailer.  It was “… taking real life and writing about it in a poetic way.”  Richard says there was a thrill to having real life written about in a way that involved some art.

  • Hunter S Thompson:  (Hells Angels) Thompson wrote this after becoming involved with the infamous motorcycle gang.  He was commissioned to write a piece about the renowned Kentucky Derby race.  He didn’t watch the race, he just watched the spectators and got himself “a bit tipsy” as Richard delicately describes it.  Alcohol prevented Thompson from completing his piece and so he simply sent his notebooks to his publisher.  The resulting work was a success.  This style and method became known as “Gonzo journalism”.
  • Tom Wolfe: (Radical Chic) This was an article published in New York magazine.  Wolfe was invited to a party hosted by Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panther political movement.  It was also attended by many celebrities.  The result, Richard says was, “gold dust” for Tom Wolfe and his notebook!  This piece demonstrates the rules and conventions that Tom Wolfe felt was indicative of New Journalism.  The aim to be absolutely truthful yet have the quality of fiction.  This was done by using four devices: 1) a dramatic scene-by-scene story, leaving out any back story and exposition etc.  2)  use of real dialogue.  Being a listener (e.g., What words do people use that make them distinctive?)  3) inclusion of status / social class details (articles of clothing, mannerisms etc) . 4) Point of view – seeing the scene through a pair of eyes – not necessarily the writer’s – it could be a bystander.  Richard describes this as “Giving yourself permission to walk a mile in another man or woman’s shoes.”
  • Joan Didion: Richard describes her simply as being “really cool!”  She is quoted as saying:

“Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through.  The work process is totally different from writing nonfiction.  You have to sit down every day and make it up.”

Richard explains Didion’s theory that in nonfiction, it’s the notes which create the work. She claims that with regards to research, the writer is “… almost honour-bound to use it,” comparing it to sculpture, rather than simply “One damn thing after another.” It is, says Richard, “An elegant rendition of the truth.”

  • Norman Mailer: (The Executioner’s Song):  Richard defines Mailer as “one of the great makers of non-fictional narrative.” He talks about a reciprocal relationship between fact and fiction, and that often when one has too many facts, they can become warped and inaccurate, perhaps resulting in a “betrayal of reality”.  Richard urges us to “… look for the poetic truth behind the facts.” The Executioner’s Song is a study of murderer Gary Gilmore.  Mailer’s interview material was sometimes “moved around on the page”, to ensure Gilmore sounded the way Mailer felt he should (something that journalists are not allowed to do), demonstrating, Richard says, that this genre allows artistry.

These writers inspired Richard to “steal a few tricks” and he goes on to explain these a little later on in his talk.  

The modern American biography seems to be an updated version of the New Journalist style and Jean Stein and George Plimpton are experts of this.  This updated style is often referred to as Oral History or Oral Biography: Taking a subject and talking to everybody around who knew them, creating a bank of interview transcripts.  The resulting transcripts are edited, interwoven, and arranged on the page to form a sort of conversation between witnesses.  Richard describes this as “a talking head documentary on paper.” The result is often the disappearance of the author from the narrative (Richard suggests American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy by Stein and Plimpton as a great example of this). 

One great benefit about this “Oral Narrative” is that the writer is freed from the shackles of journalism.  With this method, Richard explains, “… you can’t change the meaning of the story, but you can make it more engaging.” It’s a creative way for the author to use interview material – the interviews are much more about the words being spoken.  They are also about the observational opportunity of being with someone close-up for a period of time.  You can have disagreements and arguments on the page and allow the reader to form their own viewpoint.  When the interviews have been collated, Richard says that contextual information will also become apparent, such as the time period and culture of the person giving the interview.  In this style of writing, the author becomes very much part of the background; however, creativity is still important.

Richard has written several books and as stated earlier, has tried to “steal tricks” for his own works.  “It’s great to take true things and then give them some creative polish.”  

  • – Clarke was a “gritty realist” British film director.  Richard’s publisher only wanted a straight Q&A format when Richard expressed a desire to research Alan Clarke.  Richard interviewed some of Clarke’s proteges, but he felt the book “… wasn’t going where I wanted it to go.” He contacted Clarke’s friend Stephen Mears to interview, and he advised Richard to “… talk to some women” – and gave him a woman’s telephone number.  After speaking with her, which in turn led to several more interviews with other women,  “… a different story opened up,” revealing that Clarke was a “Hell raiser.” In the end, Alan Clarke: A Biography became an oral history (“the book deserves to have this kind of treatment”).
  • The Name of this book is Dogme 95 – Film makers in Denmark had gathered to protest against what they thought was the commercialisation of cinema – they felt the art form was no longer truthful.  Richard travelled to Denmark to report on what was happening.  He says that there was an attempt by the movement, to make film “… more real again.” Richard decided to carry out this project in the style of the aforementioned Hunter S Thompson, and “… hang out with them and write notes.”  He then passed the manuscript onto his publishers without editing.  The result was in Richard’s words a “… pretty rough and ready book”, not really fitting neatly into one style or genre, which is why, he says, he has a soft spot for it.
  • The Crusaders – Richard read two articles in his local paper, from the North-East of England.  One was about a man who was to “plant” a new church in a housing estate.  The article grabbed Richard’s interest and he cut the article out and kept it.  In the same paper a few weeks later another headline captured his interest: “The death of a philanthropist” – a report about a nightclub doorman who was shot dead (the man had been at school with Richard’s cousin).  Again, he cut out and kept the story.  These were two stories that told something about where he came from, inspiring The Crusaders – Richard’s first novel.  Richard claims that he never expected to write about Newcastle, but he says it was part of him; “… the pits and the ships” (all the men in his family were coalminers).  Richard travelled back up to his native Northeast to research.  When researching the book with his family, he says he realised that “… stories belong to other people.” The subjects of the original newspaper articles became characters woven into his novel.  The young Labour MP in the story is based on Tony Blair – Richard exemplifies “mixing the real and the unreal.”
  • The Possessions of Doctor Forrest – A modern gothic horror inspired by Richard’s experience of walking around Hollywood and observing the amount of cosmetic surgery women had undergone, and how there seemed to be a general desire amongst women to all look the same (at this particular time, the template seemed to be Nicole Kidman!).  Men too, he says, had gone through surgery and had “eyes like Siamese cats.” He recalls thinking at this point that “vanity is evil!” He interviewed real surgeons as well as people who had gone under the knife.  He also observed a surgeon (one of the most surprising facts he discovered was the need for surgeons to wear extremely comfortable shoes, due to the sheer amount of time they are on their feet!).  Richard recalls an interview with a young plastic surgeon who told him of a time he was driving to the theatre on a night out with his girlfriend, and he took a call from someone he was mentoring.  The mentee was currently in the middle of a procedure and needed some advice.  His girlfriend was shocked by the different, almost aggressive persona the surgeon took on whilst speaking on the phone, and she said, “… I did not like that person”.  He expressed that he sometimes feels a bit like “Jekyll & Hyde.”  – a pivotal moment in Richard’s plan for his book.
  • The Knives – a novel about a fictional home secretary.  Richard furtively visited the Home Office in the name of research – even coming face-to-face with Theresa May – the then Home Secretary!  Richard explains that descriptions of the Home Office in his novel are very similar to the real one but has a different address.  This, he says, gave him licence to say, “… this story is not real.” He quotes PD James who did a similar thing in her books – putting in an obvious lie to make it clear the work is not meant to be true.  PD James would include a note at the start of her books explaining that the settings were based on real locations but were not intended to be accurate.                      

Richard is superstitious about talking about his next book, which is not yet published. We look forward to hearing more about the new book in the future.

  +A fascinating talk which truly demonstrated the symbiotic nature of fiction and nonfiction.

Sarah Noon

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