The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth historical novel, is now officially released! (There will be a launch event later in the month — details at the end of this post.)
For an author, publication brings elation — but also sheer relief that something so long in the making has at last found its way into print. Creating a novel is a protracted and painstaking process. Sentence by sentence, it’s all hard labour! I can feelingly echo the words of Graham Swift, author of Waterland: “Novels, in my experience, are slow in coming and once I’ve begun one I know I may have years of work ahead of me.”
While I hope this new book will appeal to any reader who has enjoyed my previous stories, it differs from them in some respects. For one thing, its action is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women. Female characters figure importantly in all of my novels, but until now they haven’t dominated the narrative point of view. How risky is this method for a male writer?
Advocates of identity politics argue that fiction based directly on an author’s personal experience is the only legitimate kind — that if one tries to convey an imagined perspective of someone very different from oneself, the writing may become inauthentic and potentially offensive. I readily acknowledge the sensitivities involved in such matters. Certainly some stories are “not mine to tell.” But where should we draw the line? If we think it’s inappropriate for a writer to enter imaginatively into the mind of anyone whose gender, ethnic background or other personal circumstances are unlike the writer’s, are we missing the very point of fiction?
To quote Graham Swift again:
The whole appeal, the whole challenge and reward of fiction, lies in its liberation from personal fact. The very least we should expect of it is that it will, to use the common phrase, ‘take us out of ourselves,’ take us out of the place we normally and sometimes narrowly inhabit.
For a writer of historical fiction, many potential challenges may be at least as hazardous as imagining the experiences of people whose gender or race differ from one’s own; e.g. —
- I wasn’t alive in 1897, when The Madwoman’s Coat opens in Fremantle; so how can I know what it was like to live there at that time?
- I haven’t lived in Staffordshire or Wiltshire, where other parts of the story are set; so how can I render them authentically?
- Any artistry I could plausibly claim to possess is not of the kind practised by people at the heart of my story; so how can I depict their work with any confidence?
- Though I may be a bit crazy at times, I haven’t (yet) been locked up in an institution for people deemed insane, as some characters in this novel are, so how can I hope to convey genuine insights into their plight?
I’m sure readers of The Madwoman’s Coat will be scrutinizing the story with many such questions in mind. But I take comfort from the words of Irish novelist Colum McCann:
Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place.
The book will be launched at a “Words with Wine” event at the South Perth Library (corner Sandgate and South streets) on the evening of Wednesday 31st March. All comers welcome but registration is necessary as numbers are constrained by social distancing requirements. To register, click here.