The Fabrication of Fiction
By Patricia Schonstein
My novel, The Master’s Ruse, is set in a future time when the sea is biologically dead.
It unfolds in a country ruled by a military junta. Literature and freedom of speech have been banned and the holdings of all libraries burnt.
The narrative voice belongs to an aging authoress who lives on a vast estate and whose confidante is her old professor who lives in the nearby city.
Despite Draconian laws, they continue to write. They meet periodically to discuss their own works and literature in general.
The novel is divided into five parts, one of which is titled The Fabrication. Here the narrator describes how she creates her fictions, and compares her methods to those of her professor.
Her methods are based on my own, but I have exaggerated them, somewhat, in the novel.
Here are a few extracts:
In my experience, stories already exist, like bunches of grapes hanging from vines in the personal and collective unconscious. They are lush with potential, robustly coloured, waiting to be plucked and pressed into the equivalent of wine, waiting to be manipulated by an author and rendered into text. If an author fails to harvest his allotted share, the fruit will lose vitality, or perhaps be picked by another. Or the characters-in-waiting will grow restless and move on for, like unborn souls, they are urgent for life.
Sometimes my compositions would unfold gently, like the intrusion of morning or evening, or like the stretching petals of an opening flower. Sometimes a tale arrived as haunting visions, forcing me to stay up all hours while great insects chirruped cacophony into humid air. Sometimes I just heard the narrative utterance of the first lines and first paragraph and I would hark and go with them.
While composing my fictions, I followed an indulgent, daily routine. I rose at dawn, relishing the sun’s light, wasting no time, squeezing from the hours every drop of life. I wrote by hand, preferring the hold of a pen and the sensuality of paper over computer.
Sometimes I got up from my pages and strolled through the garden. Or I walked to the ridge and looked back towards the house, with my thoughts on what I was creating, processing it from a distance, allowing it to breathe. I continually modelled the clay of my creation, cutting away at its exterior to release the composition from a foetal place.
I seldom wrote at night, instead reading or listening to music, though I continued living the creative process, occasionally acting it out. Sometimes I glanced through what I had written that day, but made no corrections.
In beginning a new piece, I wrote down the title, which I never changed. This served as a contract, an anchor and commitment to the process … I set down a template, a blueprint, as an artist will sketch a cartoon before beginning on the painting itself, or a sculptor first fashions a wax maquette. This would not be anything rigid, just a rough draft of what I intended the novel to be about. It was not a plot outline. I never worked with plots.
I generally wrote the first and last chapters, marking the boundaries of the tale – the point of embarkation and the final destination. This light embrace positioned me and I felt secure within it. I located the centre of the narrative and composed from there, following the pulsing, life-craving of the story within me, embellishing the narrative with flamboyant and florid devices, peppering it with artefacts and symbolism, sometimes knotting sequins to catch light.
I never dictated to the work, but instead irrigated it, permitting it to grow and reach its fullness organically. I thought of myself, not so much as the creator of the tale but as its unfolder – the instrument that gave it life. The question might arise as to whether I considered myself a mere channel and not actually a composer.
When I had identified the sound of the narrative voice, when it resonated confidently within me, I would decide which wardrobe to dress from for the duration of the novel and select a set of clothes. I would wear these outfits only to write.
Properly attired, sitting at my desk or pacing the stoep, I visualised a door. The world into which this door led would be that of the new fiction and it was through that door that my characters entered. I left it slightly ajar throughout the creative process.
With each novel’s portal there was a precise time of opening, a time when I turned the handle, or drew back a bolt, or flicked a small catch, or turned a key, swinging the door open. From this point there was no going back. Either I walked in, or strode in, or took each step cautiously. There was no telling what lay beyond, in that new world over which I alone had mastery. I would then call up characters from out of the shadows, leaving the door held open on a hook and waiting, like a stage director who had pasted advertisements outside a theatre.
I paid little attention to how my characters turned up as long as they did not let me down once I had accepted them, leaving me stranded. Sometimes I heard the ring of wagon wheels against cobbles, or the clip of a horse’s hooves, or the idling purr of a restored Cadillac as its passengers stepped out.
The professor was not comfortable with this avant-garde uncertainty, the vagueness, that he judged me to employ in peopling my novels. In a classic way, he composed all his characters, first sketching them, then defining and clothing them, then clarifying their role, all within the preparatory drafting of a foundation plot. He wanted to control his characters and found the untimely arrival of my unknown, ex-directory persons disconcerting. Because the individuals who graced his novels were completely his creation, they were safe and accomplished, posing no challenge to his control of the whole. He was especially concerned about my emotional involvement and by the way I empowered figures.
Even though I made use of itinerant players, I also drew from everyday life. I took from the world what I needed and altered its shape and purpose to make of it something it was not. I walked the various quarters of the city, but particularly the docklands, frequenting cafés and cabarets, show-bars, strip-salons and gaming-rooms, sitting alone in corners, observing, continually trawling social encounters, hunting and gathering material to enrich my novels. I irrigated reality and harvested substance, borrowing from people their form and manner while taking care never to expose myself as a working author.
I filled a data-base with faces, modes of dress, manners, inebriation, courtesy, vulgarity, desire, the gentlest of gestures, a movement of the mouth, the turning of a head toward light, the glance of one stranger toward another. I took note of how women used cosmetics, how they painted their faces and with what colours and whether they replaced waxed eyebrows with thin inexpressive pencil lines or left their own to give proper feature to their eyes. I was fascinated by the application of foundation, rouge and hair dye. I looked out for unusual jewellery.
When my characters were more or less assembled, inside the place where I was to begin the novel, I would half-close the door for intimacy, still allowing for any latecomers. Then, together, we prepared for the creative process, as though to dance, without disturbance from the outside world, and where all of us felt safe. We knew that there would come a time when I, as author, had to conclude the story and bid them farewell, so we savoured every moment. I would be right there among them, yet apart, enacting with them, yet a few steps back.
On completion, when the tale was done, just before finally closing it off, I indulged in the pleasure of what I had created. Late at night, in the deep silence, I would walk back through the fictitious world. There I would make tiny adjustments, repositioning this or that, adding a colour here or a hat there, brushing a texture, cutting away something that might now seem superfluous. And even at that very late stage, if it was necessary, I might allow a dialogue to extend, or slightly alter the course of an event. I might even permit a character some last, final deed.
Going back into the fiction was like entering a magic land and I would be there like a producer just before curtain-up, just before the entire composition was given over to an audience. The feeling of accomplishment was exhilarating – like placing a keystone or tasting a fine dessert.
About the author:
Patricia Schonstein is an internationally published, award-winning novelist, poet and author of children’s books. She is South Africa’s undisputed queen of magic-realism. Her works are decorative and opulent, deep and philosophical. She has a Master’s Degree in creative writing from the University of Cape Town. www.patriciaschonstein.com
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