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Book Review, Books, Guest Authors

Guest Author – Barry Walsh on Writing fiction from your own life

BJ Walsh-3This morning I had the pleasure of catching up with Wendy Wallace who was my first ever Guest Author on the Literary Sofa just over a year ago. I’m delighted at how popular this regular slot has become; the ‘one-question interview’ formula produces thought-provoking pieces every time.  I read the novel and ask the author to write about the angle which interested me most (and which I think my blog readers would enjoy).  The one question all writers, especially debut authors, dread is ‘Is it autobiographical?’  Normally I would never dream of asking this, but having met Barry Walsh, I already knew his novel The Pimlico Kid was based – to some extent – on his childhood, so it seemed appropriate to invite him to share his experience of using his own life in fiction:  (my mini-review follows)

After I gave up my suit-and-tie career, many stories lined up in my head clamouring to be written. But the story I kept pushing to the back of the queue was the one that eventually became The Pimlico Kid.

Why? Because it would feature much of my early life – and me! A worrying prospect which, if I was to accept and act on writerly exhortations to write the ‘truth’ – whatever that is – would be distinctly uncomfortable.  It was.

However, while I made several false starts on books I wasn’t ready to write, The Pimlico Kid kept knocking on the door. I finally let it in after realising with huge excitement that this was ‘the one’ during a timed exercise on a creative writing course led by Jacqui Lofthouse.

As a kind of fever gripped, I found myself writing in some half-world between recollection and invention. When I emerged, I experienced both exhilaration and deep pessimism about ever turning it into a novel.

Writers, like Thomas Wolfe, turned this process into gold and his Look Homeward Angel towers above everything I’ve read about childhood. According to those who knew Wolfe – and to me – his novel is infinitely greater and truer than any memoir or autobiography.

Unlike Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, with whom I’d identified as an 18-year old, there were no litanies of irritation with life or the mores of the older generation, or contempt for contemporaries but a brave plunge deep into childhood and the memory of inexpressible feelings, of wonder and bewilderment, of fear and first love.

Another anchor that I dragged for some time was knowing how many good childhood or coming-of-age novels were out there already. I waded through many sloughs of despond, and none deeper than the time I read David Mitchell’s marvellous Black Swan Green. Key lesson for a debut writer? Look and learn from the greats but measuring yourself against them can snuff out what little creative spark you possess.

During early editing stages, only the exigencies of making the plot work – extending a story or deepening a relationship – helped me achieve any clarity about where the rub between recollection and invention produced revelation. I now understood the semi-divine Alice Munro, who said, “The stories are not autobiographical, but they’re personal in that way. I seem to know only the things that I’ve learned. Probably some things through observation, but what I feel I know surely is personal.”

I also worried that it was way too late to be writing about childhood. I was almost sixty and believed that the subject matter – first love and coming-of-age – was what I should have written about and got out of my system when I was much younger. And I could bring to mind no writer of a similar age dealing successfully with childhood memory in a first novel. All I could do was push on bolstered by a timely comment from a writer friend, “It may never be too late to write a novel but it can be too early.”

I’m unsure whether I have a good memory because I dwell so much in the past or if I travel back so often because of a good memory. My wife says that I look back too much, which is all right up to a point but I that “shouldn’t stare”. There is a theory that we enter the future backwards and therefore can never see it. Maybe it’s why I prefer to sit with my back to the engine on a train to let the present slip away from me, rather than face the retina bombardment of the immediate future.

So what did I learn about writing from my own life?

  • Unlike L P Hartley, I didn’t find the past to be a foreign country. It’s a place I know. I’ve mapped the terrain. I know its inhabitants. I speak the language. And I’m forever travelling back to feel the magic of what Adele calls the ‘glory days’ in her song ‘Someone Like You’.
  • Being a rookie writer, I was writing about childhood because I simply couldn’t get past it.
  •  The early words came in the form of memoir. This worked well at first but it soon became clear that my relatively happy childhood might not make such a riveting story.
  • Only when I began imagining the lives of others, and allowed their personalities to ignite new stories and relationships, did the story take off in a messy mix of fact and fiction. The novel grew around these characters and their irresistible demands to get on the page. As Mary McCarthy said of her writing, “What I really do is take real plums and put them in an imaginary cake.”
  • In getting these stories down, I found how wonderfully elastic narrative time can be and how people who may not have been around at this period could be dragged back or pulled forward to fit in as if they had always been there.
  •  My narrator felt more and more credible, the closer I got to the core of the other characters.
  • I discovered a Rumsfeldian truth: writing about what I knew and what I remembered led to writing about what I didn’t know – and what I thought I’d forgotten.
  • The story elements that hurt or embarrassed me most were those worth keeping.

So when asked if The Pimlico Kid is a true story, the answer is ‘yes’ and, of course, ‘no’. And in darker moments of uncertainty, I think of Francis Bacon who said, “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Barry is writing a second novel, Love Me Do that is due to be published in 2014.

Thanks to Barry for this wonderful post – it really made me think about what part my life has played in my writing.  I doubt that any writer could honestly say ‘none’!  

Pimlico Kid coverIn Brief:  My View of The Pimlico Kid

Barry Walsh uses his life experiences as the starting point for creating a fictional world in which the reader cannot see the joins.  What impressed me most – and instantly – about this debut was the authenticity of the narrative ‘voice’.  13 year old Billy is a genuinely engaging character and to read this is to see the world through his eyes.  There is a colourful cast of characters, all convincingly individual and all playing a part in a story which, on the whole, remains on the right side of the line between touching and sentimental.  There is both light and dark, with some very uncomfortable moments – Barry’s emotional honesty pays off.  The 1960s era and setting are very vivid, as are the agonies and confusion of early adolescence and sexual curiosity – very recognisable by anyone who’s known boys of that age.  Some books make me laugh out loud, very few make me cry.  This one did both.

Why are readers so fascinated by the role played by autobiographical experience in fiction?  Writers, what part does your past play in your work?

*POSTSCRIPT*

Wendy Wallace, my first ever Guest Author is looking forward to the publication of her second novel The Sacred River in August 2013.

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “Guest Author – Barry Walsh on Writing fiction from your own life

  1. There’s always something of my past in my writing, more often the sense of place and feeling though rather than real life events forming the plot. I can’t imagine not using that experience if it fits.

    Posted by Peter Domican | July 2, 2013, 17:53
  2. I found this post particularly interesting as my current WIP is VERY loosely based on my experiences as a teenager. Like Barry, initially I was writing what I know but this soon morphed into fiction to make the story more dramatic. It now only has threads of ‘truth’ running through it but as Barry says,”‘truth’ – whatever that is” is a matter of opinion. I’ve also read Black Swan Green and felt in awe of Mitchell’s skill but again like Barry, I felt my WIP was the story I wanted to tell, regardless of however many other coming-of-age novels are already out there. I’ll definitely add Barry’s to my TBR list.

    Posted by helenmackinven | July 2, 2013, 18:03
    • Thanks Helen. I’m a much more talented reader of than I am a writer. Reading great writers is lifeblood that has sustained my own writing. But measuring the distance between their writing and mine (and it’s hard not to) doesn’t help, especially during a time of self-doubt.

      Posted by Walsh Barry | July 5, 2013, 15:00
  3. I’m adding The Pimlico Kid to my TBR list, it sounds great.

    I think most of us use some “real life” in our fiction. How can we not? We only have our own life and the whole of life is seen through the lense of our own experiences. I think. Something like that! I like to use real places – where I’ve lived, worked, visited – and plonk them in my novels, but people them with made-ups. I don’t base characters on myself or anybody I know, but I do steal the odd mannerism, or expression, or memorable recollection, some are mine, some are other people’s. I’m looking forward to my family and friends reading my stuff and seeing if they spot any of the borrowings. That’s the fun part of writing, or one of the fun parts. Great post Isabel.

    Posted by louisewalters12 | July 3, 2013, 07:35
  4. Lovely post, Barry. Lovely book too, I might add. As Isabel says, the emotional honesty shines through. The inner lives of 13-year-old boys aren’t often addressed in literature. so it was an illuminating and riveting read.
    I also like your observation above, ‘The story elements that hurt or embarrassed me were almost always worth keeping’ – I can certainly identify with that. Courage pays off, it seems, if you’re brave enough – and you’ve been brave enough. Billy would be proud of you.

    Posted by Whisks | July 3, 2013, 10:56
  5. I am very taken with the notion of real plums in an imaginary cake as I think that’s rather what I do too.

    Also nice to read a name check for Jacqui Lofthouse who has helped a lot of writers through courses and mentoring.

    Posted by rowena | July 3, 2013, 14:22
  6. Lovely blog Barry. I think this is why we are so embarrassed to let others read our writing: because there is so much of our souls in there that its like giving them our most private diary. I’m two chapters into ‘the kid’ and I’m hooked!

    Posted by LinsP | July 6, 2013, 22:00
  7. Thank you Isabel, and thank you, Barry. I have now finishes, and loved, The Pimlico Kid. I take your point about hanging on to the most embarrassing truths. I spread the autobiography between the characters in my books, but all their weakest moments tend to be mine.
    You mention the process of imagining the lives of others, and their personalities igniting new stories. That is the crucial phase for me. I can’t impose a story on characters: it must flow from people in relationship. What I find strange is how very often these new stories lead on to little strands of autobiography, as if the story is synthesizing tiny elements of my life experience, and carrying them for me.
    Oh, and I’m another one who likes to sit with his back to the engine.
    Thank you for a fine, rich book full of memories and invention.

    Posted by John Taylor | July 18, 2013, 12:14
    • Thanks John, I believe you’ve summarised how my stories develop better than I have!
      Strange how writing this way doesn’t stop me feeling envious of writers who plot and then write (I know it’s not as simple as this). There were many times during the writing of my novel that I longed for a bit of structure as I wallowed around with no clear path ahead of me through the swamp.

      Posted by Barry Walsh | July 23, 2013, 10:18
      • I suspect that is why the novel I was writing at the same time as ‘Pimlico Kid’ didn’t quite make it to publication, Barry. You found a structure that made the wonderful episodes work. I had masses of material, and re-shaped it several times: not so much sculpting out of rock, more playing with the pudding in my bowl. It was a labour of love, and I’m still very attached to it (as was my agent at the time) and I hope to go back to it someday, but I might need to stiffen it up with some cornflour!

        Posted by John Taylor | July 23, 2013, 10:59

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