21 April 2023
What you 'know' is only the start of what you will write, says novelist Charles Lambert
I’ve been thinking about that classic adage: 'Write what you know.' I don’t know how far it’s still offered as advice, if not as a rule, but it’s always struck me as problematic. What do we mean by ‘know’?
In one sense, writing is knowing. Whatever we write, whatever words we combine to make something new, we also, and unavoidably, know. And who’s to say that we didn’t know it before we touched the keyboard, or pen? Perhaps that doesn’t even matter. As soon as we have written something - a phrase, a paragraph, a story, a novel - it exists as an inextricable part of our experience and, at the same time, it has a life out there. It is part of the known world.
But is that what the adage is talking about? Maybe it’s simply saying that all writing, in the widest sense, is autobiographical and acquires its authority from that. In which case, my life allows me to write about the experience of growing up in the Midlands, of my university life, of teaching in Italy and Portugal, of falling in love, and growing older, of writing itself.
What it doesn’t allow is for me to venture out of my historical period, or the countries I’ve lived in, or the people I’ve befriended and loved (and sometimes loathed). What a limited palette I would have to work with if that were the case. And even if I did restrict my writing to my own life, what would I have?
All we really know is memory and memory is the most unreliable witness of all. That is what makes it our friend, because half of the creative work has already been done. Our memories are half true, half invented, and the ways in which they have been invented, which are concealed from us, are revelatory of the kind of story our past wants us to tell. But is our past enough?
Penelope Fitzgerald wrote four wonderful novels rooted in her own experience, and four even more remarkable novels, set in Italy in the 1950s, pre-revolutionary Moscow, Cambridge in 1912 and 18th century Germany, respectively. After publishing At Freddie's, she said that she 'had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about.' So what did she do? She set about discovering things in the lives of others, in periods and even places of which she had no personal knowledge. And she made those things as authentic, and as known, as anything she had directly experienced. She did what writers have been doing since the Epic of Gilgamesh. She mixed up things she knew – directly or indirectly – with things she imagined.
My first novel, Little Monsters, began with a female narrator looking back on her childhood. The voice of the woman came to me as I wrote – indeed, I discovered that she was a woman only as I wrote – but I knew every inch of where she lived, the pub in the Pennines, the surrounding hills, the pool where the mermaid died. What I knew confirmed the reality of the narrator, made her as real and known as the world she inhabited.
In my second novel, Any Human Face, the protagonist is a lonely Italo-Scottish bookseller in Rome. I’ve never worked in a bookshop or spent more than a few weeks in Scotland, but I know Rome and I know loneliness, and that was enough. In my most recent novel, Birthright, also set in Rome, identical twins, separated at birth, are re-united. I’m not a twin, although I’ve often wondered what it might be like, but that didn’t matter. Looking through their eyes I saw the familiar surroundings of flats I’d lived in, my favourite bar, the university campus, the streets and squares that have provided a background to forty years of my life. In other novels, my protagonists have included a retired journalist-cum-spy, a widow, a disfigured man in a lonely mansion, a rent boy, a Ukrainian refugee, a washed-up pornographer – all of them as far from my experience as can be imagined. But what made it possible for me to imagine them was that each of them had something of me, and of my world. Each of them possessed that strange, inflammable mixture of the known and the unknown that, together, create convincing fiction.
Birthright by Charles Lambert (Gallic Books) is out on 23rd April
Have you got a story you want to tell? Read author Nikesh Shukla's take on why your stories matter.