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Reality Fiction

How real is real? As a journalist, I try very hard to verify my facts, source all opinions, and present both sides of every issue. Quite frankly, making sure my stories are grounded in fact is as important as stringing together the right words to tell them.

I try to use the same discipline—in spirit, at least—when I write fiction. With a subject as laden with emotion as violent death in the Congo, however, it’s hard to be objective. That’s part of the appeal of writing fiction, of course; you’re allowed some license.

There is still an obligation to write as truthfully as you can, though, which is why I spent a full year just reading about the Congo before I put pen to paper to write Heart of Diamonds. Then I spent more time doing other kinds of research. The truths I learned threatened to make my fiction seem tame by comparison.

I read everything from 19th century tales of exploration and the cruelties of King Leopold’s colonization to the MUNOC reports on violence in North Kivu Province, from missionary accounts from the 1970’s to news reports on the excesses of Mobutu’s regime. I compiled thousands of pages of notes on events as real as they could be, let them percolate through my brain, then I wrote a work of “fiction.”

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Fiction as historical record

I have a friend and we've just been talking about how powerful fiction can be as an historical record. Some very good fiction emerged out of WWII, on both sides. One that really stands out for me was Gunter Grass' Tin Drum. 'Playing for Time' is another. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - even stories as surreal as 'The Master and Margarita' or as flawed as 'The Lives of Others'.

Historical records are overwhelming to most people. Sifting through the Stasi files or the records of the camps left by the Nazis or the thousands of photographs of the S21 victims of the Pol Pot regime - they overwhelm, they stagger the mind, their very concrete nature can make them seem unreal and decontextualized.

As humans, I think we are not record-keepers so much as story tellers and story hearers. Powerful, well-researched fictionalized accounts of real events have the ability to make history personal, give it context and somehow allow it to live for us, in our minds, in a way that a thousand neatly-typed filing cards cannot. It can lend a greater sense of the enormity of a tragedy than all the documentary evidence in an archive.

I look forward to reading your book next time I get to a place with a bookstore.





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Truth is Stranger

When I set out to write Plasma Dreams, I knew how difficult it would be to keep the physics accurate and believable without it sounding like a doctoral thesis. I knew the only way I could pull it off was to actually WORK in plasma physics lab for a while, crawling around bizarre hardware, and rubbing elbows with even more bizarre people. What started out as a literary research project ended up as an unintentional career. The work had proven so interesting (and time-consuming) that the writing became somewhat secondary. In fact, I had collaborated on so many papers that I was developing a rather unexpected credibility in the field, being invited to numerous plasma physics conferences and such. I seriously worried that writing a piece of fiction would damage my credibility as a researcher. The problem ultimately solved itself, when the research funding ran out and I had to find a much more prosaic (though much higher paying) job. I ended up finishing my novel well after I was out of the field (the first time). During the marketing phase of the book, I was re-hired by the UCLA physics department for another three years, during which I began the "prequel" to Plasma Dreams, which is now in the marketing phase. Again, I am working at a "normal" job, which does give me lots of spare time to write. So, I suppose the best formula for writing productivity is to have a really boring job.
At any rate, when all was done, I didn't have to make any excuses for the science I portrayed in Plasma Dreams. All the hardware described actually exists. And some of the characters I've met are a lot stranger than my book's characters!

Eric Nichols
North Pole, AK

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In the digital age, nothing is real enough

One hot button I always had with my photographer friends is what’s real. This ideas started when more and more us started using digital. The traditional darkroom approach can now be simply accomplished by software. I think, that question can potentially increase the position of the system item networkwork admin.

Renjie Wang      redroom.com

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Brave New World

Hi Renjie:

Although digitized video certainly creates more convincing and convenient means of deception, I'm not sure it fundamentally differs from ink on paper. The words we write are not objects, they are merely abstractions described by wiggles of ink on paper. It's not the mass or value of the ink or paper that determines our books' value; it's the ARRANGEMENT of wiggles on the paper. In this regard, it is no different from the arrangements of ones and zeroes in the flip-flops of our computers' ram.
The core issue of this isn't how skillfully we lie, whether it's by twiddling bits or wiggling a quill. It's the integrity of the motive.
When I write a novel, I implicitly tell my reader up front, "For the next few days, I'm going to be lying to you for your entertainment and my profit. I do not expect you to believe a word I'm saying. If you happen to learn something in the process, so much the better, but I'm not promising anything. Do we have an agreement?"
The travesty is when we create a novel and attempt to palm it as news.


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Real Fiction

I agree with your conclusion that palming a novel off as news is a travesty. The only worse one, perhaps, is passing fiction off as a memoir, but that seems to be an industry, not just a trend.

Without, hopefully, coming across as a shameless pontificator, I believe that good fiction reveals truth, although it may not report it.


Dave Donelson