Friday, 29 April 2016

Merging Fact with Fiction - with Lionel Shriver

Verbatim notes from Guardian Masterclass with Lionel Shriver (4 April 2016).  Huge thanks to my long-suffering husband for bagging me a place on this, as a very early and thoughtful birthday treat!

Merging Fact with Fiction

Novels often incorporate non-fiction elements / research.  There is an art to this!
How is the use of non-fiction helpful?

  • If writing is intended to be realistic (i.e. not fantasy genre) then non fiction details help create “verisimilitude”, pinning the story to a real time and place
  • If details are off, then readers’ faith in the author will be destroyed (“the spell is broken”) – factual content needs to be accurate for it to be beneficial
  • Authors get lots of reader credit for getting details right
  • For example, a good route into creating well-rounded and believable characters is in thinking carefully about their jobs/occupations and doing requisite research (as you would do if choosing a profession in real life!)
  • Details like this come back to the writer in spades, by offering up potential conflicts, worries, protagonists… Too many novels take a person’s work-life for granted, characters become too domestic. (But DON’T make your characters writers – writers don’t do anything!)
  • Use non-fiction to edify and educate readers – they are grateful for this, especially those that struggle to digest traditional non-fiction. “Sugar coating the facts” of an issue or topic.
  • Even more important is self-edification.  Enrich your own life as you write.  Start to care about things.
  • With caution, you can use fiction to make a social/political point or champion a cause.  But you may have to disguise this a little – don’t preach!  Nobody likes being lectured to.

Some “Fields of Authority” that Shriver has used in her work:

  • Anthropology (in “Female of the Species”)
  • Rock n Roll drumming and US immigration system
  • Northern Ireland politics/troubles ("Ordinary Decent Criminals")
  • Population control/demography
  • Inheritance law/disputes
  • Professional tennis (“Double Fault”)
  • Foreign correspondents
  • School shootings/ Attachment Disorder (“We Need To Talk About Kevin”) (Interestingly, when I questioned Shriver about whether she did much research into child psychology for Kevin, she answered that actually she didn’t want to get too hung up about that.  The mother in this book didn’t seek professional advice or get any real answers about what (if anything) was wrong with Kevin, or their relationship, so she felt this gave the book more realism/authenticity).
  •  US health care system (“So much for that”)
  •   Economics / dystopian economics (“The Mandibles”, forthcoming).

Actually doing the research – some tips:
·         May be useful to “page through” some academic journals – try to find out what the most esteemed journals are in the field and where the main academic divides lie.
·         Remember: make up the people/places/things that you need to author (i.e. have complete control over – they are then in your complete authority)
·         Shriver claims she is not as obsessed with actual settings as other writers, and tends to fall back to places she knows/has lived in (e.g. NYC, London, Boston, Raleigh). But, even within a city such as London, there are LOTS of different worlds to explore.  Walk around a bit!
·         Use what you know.  Any unusual or faintly interesting experience is gold dust to the writer.
·         Look at places with a fresh eye when using it for fiction. Carry a notebook everywhere. Take photos.
·         Internet is normally primary resource – but BEWARE the Wikipedia novel!  It’s lazy and doesn’t work.  Don’t just “dump” information into your work – this is as bad as copying and pasting.
·         Use google maps (especially Street View) to get detailed information on places (and also Trip Advisor reviews, photos, etc)
·         But original experience (i.e. leaving the house!) is very important.  Sensory information can’t be gleaned over the web alone.
·         Make a commitment to the topic.  Buy an expensive book in the subject area.
·         Create little individual libraries for each book you write, as a tribute to your hard work.
·         Don’t procrastinate.  Don’t use research to put off writing the book.
·         Be active in your research, like writing in a notebook.

Other points:
·         When something requires too much explanation, it can distract from the story.
·         You can use a “Glossary of Troublesome Terms” (see “Ordinary Decent Criminals”!) to provide background information.  But do it in a classy, entertaining, unique style.  It should be part of the book.
·         Don’t neglect libraries.  Not everything is on the internet (especially for historical topics)
·         Your job is to tell a story.  Don’t weigh it down. Be judicious.
·         Don’t be a show-off.  Be impressive without trying too hard.
·         Treat the audience as an equal. 
·         Be artful. Don’t duplicate.
·         Try not to use information that will quickly date a book – try to write about something timeless or universal (even if you’re writing about something very topical, it can have a universal message).  For example, “So much for that” is no just about 2007 healthcare in the US, it is also about what it’s like to be terminally ill and facing death.
·         Remember – enthusiasm for your subject is contagious!
·         Deliver your information with style and attitude.  E.g. an extract in “Kevin” delivers some facts about real school shootings with accuracy, but also infused with (the mother’s) emotion.  The facts are delivered in authentic dialogue.  This makes it less “authorial” and more animated.  In dialogue, people trade in information, usually to a purpose.
·         Make it funny!
·         Inject your own perception/acuity/thoughts/interpretation – what do you conclude?
·         Disguise information as if your reader knows it already.  Flatter them.
·         Try to let some other views/dimensions into the book, even if you disagree.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

So you think you might like to work in perinatal psychiatry?

I was asked to speak at an event at the RCPsych today, encouraging more doctors to enter the perinatal psychiatry field.  Obviously I couldn't attend (being on the other side of the Atlantic!) but I sent over some thoughts in writing.  Please share with anyone who might consider this career.  Worldwide, we need many more perinatal psychiatrists (not to mention mental health nurses!).

Why choose perinatal psychiatry?

You've already studied medicine, and taken an oath to Do No Harm.  You are scientific and yet artful.  Pursuing the noblest of professions.  The world will always need doctors.

You are thinking about a career in psychiatry.  Perhaps you'd rather work with thoughts, emotions and behaviours than with blood and guts.  Be warned though - we psychiatric patients can still provide plenty of the latter!  Your tools in psychiatry will be your OWN mind, rather than the scalpel or stethoscope - how you communicate with us, what you choose to hear, how you evaluate the complex human pictures before you.  Are you good at managing chaos?  If you aren't yet, you soon will be.

You've come across the term "perinatal" and are curious to learn more.  What is perinatal psychiatry?  Might it be the path for me?

I'm not going to paint you a picture of roses and unicorns.  You are too clever to fall for that.  Instead, as someone who spent some time in a Mother and Baby Unit, I will give you realism. 

MBUs: inspiring, rewarding, emotional, tense, suffocating places.

Scenes of utter joy one minute (imagine a new mum looking into her baby's eyes and smiling at him for the first time!).
Hilarity (explosive poo crisis in room 2!).
Friendship (between patients thrown together in the most inauspicious circumstances - and, yes, the staff caring for them).
Heart break (the decisions that you - yes, you - may have to make will be life's hardest: removing babies from families; treating mothers against their will; deciding their problems are not psychiatric after all but social - and you have no drug or therapy for that).

But if you are considerate, calm, good at balancing risks, seeing the bigger picture, communicating with both the psychotic and their equally frantic family members, then perhaps an MBU could be the place for you to make a real and positive difference.  

Because if you help fix one severely mentally ill new mother (and I was one) then not only do you send her home but you give her and her whole family their life back.  You give the baby back his mum and the dad back his partner. You give each family a new start.  And rather than remembering the hideous psychosis and the fear and the distress and the panic of their postpartum days they will remember the care they received throughout it all.  They will get on with their lives, not just recovered from that spell of illness, but hopefully stronger and more able to cope with whatever life throws at them next. 

So - consider it.  Do not enter into it lightly.  But consider it.