Wednesday, June 24, 2015

TURNING FACT INTO FICTION

Fifty-four year old Charles Davis is a remarkable novelist who we’ve published before. He’s a British citizen who has lived and worked in the United States, Sudan, Turkey, Ivory Coast, and Spain, before settling down several  years ago in France, across from the English Channel. An adventuresome and curious man he’s also visited and hiked around the Libyan desert, Zanzibar, and Timbuktu, and is fluent in Spanish and French as well.

In 2007 we published
Walk on, Bright Boy, set in Moorish Spain, and in 2010 Standing at the Crossroads, set in Africa. Both novels were highly praised, with Publishers Weekly saying that “his characters are about the awesome transformative powers of storytelling.”

I can only add this: that his historical (and hysterical) and moving novel, Hitler, Mussolini, and Me, debuts a year from now. And, for all the praise his earlier work have gathered, this latest one blasts off from Earth’s gravitational pull and flies into the furthest reaches of our solar system. It’s one of the most original and best books I’ve ever read and that we’ve ever published, and one that should find readers throughout the world. Our publication date in the USA is set for June 2016, a year from now, and we are expecting publishers in many other countries to acquire rights as well. With that, I turn you over to Charles:



“Novelists make stuff up, right? No, wrong. We do make up quite a lot of stuff. But we're also a gang of marauding magpies, pillaging other people's lives for stories, experiences, emotions, and observations, gathering the bright and shiny bits of being then rearranging them into a pattern we hope will be pleasing enough to persuade people we're not wasting their time. It's a tricky trade, tricky in every sense of the word, never more so than when the purloined raw material is a story based on historical events, because no matter how deft the narrative, readers will always end up asking, 'I wonder whether that really happened?' Worse, they can find out where you got it wrong.



“My most recent experience of conjuring fiction from fact was writing a novel about Hitler and Mussolini. I'd long wanted to write about Hitler. He does loom rather large in the history of the last century and anyone who wants to grapple with morality and human nature really has to take him into account sooner or later. But how? There are tens of thousands of books about Hitler and novelists as diverse as Beryl Bainbridge, Ron Hansen, Richard Hughes, Norman Mailer, Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, George Steiner and A. N. Wilson have taken a stab at capturing the man with words, not to mention the sickeningly brilliant meta-history devised by Ron Rosenbaum. Quite apart from the quality of the competition, the number of books alone suggest you might be better off doing a little light dusting or mowing the lawn. And even if millions of words hadn't already been churned out on the subject, just how do you grapple with a figure, so large, so improbable, so monstrous?

“Well, to start with, you make him smaller. But we'll come to that in a minute.


“First, the trigger. I wanted to write about Hitler, didn't know how to approach it. Then one evening we watched part of a documentary on the TV about 
Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, an anti-fascist archaeologist and art historian who was obliged to guide Hitler and Mussolini around the monuments and museums of Rome and Florence in 1938. The documentary wasn't all that good and we turned the TV off before the programme finished. But I had my angle, somebody antipathetic to the tyrants compelled to accompany them before their crimes inflated them into monsters. That was key, 'before', in other words at a period when they were just people, powerful and unpleasant people, but otherwise much like any other people, not yet numbered among the main villains of the twentieth century and, in Hitler's case, demonized as one of history's greatest mass murderers.

“The main moral debate about Hitler concerns his place in humanity. The argument is between exceptionalists, who maintain that Hitler was a freak beyond human nature, and naturalists who claim he was within—but at the extreme edge—of human nature. Given all that tosh about the Jewish-Bolshevik-Christian-Communist-Capitalist-Jewish conspiracy, exceptionalists do have a point. Everybody knows that people can be fabulously dim, but come on, this is imbecility on an intergalactic scale, pushing stupidity to superhuman levels. And then there are the crimes themselves, crimes so immense that they must surely be beyond the bounds of a reasonable, reasoning species.


“Unfortunately, I don't think they are. I'm not saying, like some have, that any one of us could have been a Hitler. The fact that we all have negative bits lurking about inside us doesn't mean we're all hankering to commit crimes against humanity. But I do believe most of us would have muddled along well enough in Nazi Germany, participating in or turning a blind eye to the regime's crimes because it made life easier. And I do believe that it is an act of intellectual laziness if not moral cowardice to dismiss Hitler as a mad monster. Doubtless he was a bit mad, doubtless he was a monster, but he was one of us, too, and we can't just quarantine him in some category of inimitable iniquity that doesn't contaminate the rest of us.


“So if the immensity of the man's crimes are not to remove him altogether from the moral universe, we've got make him smaller, reducing him to an entity that can be accommodated within the spectrum of human behaviour. And how do we make things smaller? When events are just too big and scary to be encompassed otherwise, when we can't run away or hide behind the sofa, what do we do? I know what I do. I laugh at them. That's the basic idea behind
Hitler, Mussolini, and Me. A bloke landed with a brace of tyrants, can't get away, so he's laughing at them; or, at least, we're laughing at them through the medium of his observations. The question is what belittling mockery is appropriate for Hitler and Mussolini?

“Looking at the pictures, it struck me that Il Duce bore more than a passing resemblance to a penis. That distended, glistening, glabrous, glandular looking head was all too phallic. And as for the helmets! He reminded me of a cartoon I saw when I was a teenager, a pornographic spoof called
Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle, which featured foot soldiers that were basically male pudenda topped with a helmet trundling about on their bollocks squirting jizzum at their foes. When I checked, the image was not as close as I remembered, but the idea stuck.


"At the same time, despite the histrionics of his famous balcony speeches, there was something uptight, restricted, faintly costive about Mussolini, so I found myself thinking about him as The Constipated Prick. Hitler, meanwhile, was infamously effusive, wittering on remorselessly both in public and private, so he was clearly a windbag. And as a vegetarian it was not beyond the bounds of possibility to suppose his bowels produced more gas than most. As a consequence, he assumed the counterpoint role of The Flatulent Windbag.

“Next step, research, initially on the Internet, then in books, in the course of which I came across reams of little known facts about the dictators' private lives, including the astonishing discovery that Mussolini did indeed suffer from chronic constipation and Hitler was farting all the time. This was most gratifying. Novelists don't make stuff up? I'd just reinvented the twentieth century!

“Some writers plan every scene of a book before they even begin writing. Personally, I know where I'm starting from and I know where I want to go, but I only have a very hazy notion how I'm going to get there. This is a dangerous technique if you've already got enough notes to piece together a medium sized encyclopedia. When I started writing the first draft, I found myself breathlessly rushing ahead, trying to tell everything all at once. At one point, I was sixty pages into the novel before my principals had even made an appearance. However, I gradually managed to whittle things down and eventually whittled my way into a format that would allow me to tell my story and share some of the bizarre-but-true details I'd unearthed.


“Despite the somewhat cavalier attitude intimated in the first paragraph of this blog, turning famous fact into fiction does entail a degree of responsibility that is not implicit in making stuff up from the things we've cherry-picked from friends, family, and our own lives. The main issue I had was how to present Hitler and Mussolini. The advantage of writing about men like them is that you don't need to dream up or create characters, they're ready made and their fame means you can elicit a latent depository of images, prejudices, ideas and facts already stockpiled in the reader's mind. But you do have to realize the characters in a way that the reader accepts as plausible. You don't need to get every detail right, but you must ensure every detail is credible and coherent with the model.


“Given the aim of cutting the dictators down to size, this was a bit of a challenge, particularly for Hitler. Hitler was highly intelligent, charming, generous, funny, and charismatic. He was fond of children and animals, capable of capricious kindness, and could be a loyal friend. He was also a crashing bore with a vulgar mind and narrow intellect, a man so sure of his own rectitude that he never doubted the justification for any act of cruelty, barbarity, or brutality he deemed necessary. And he farted a lot. In a book aimed at laughter, you have to emphasize the vulgarity and flatulence, which inevitably falsifies the character, turning him into a caricature and reducing the complex human being. But, as I said already, that was my intention, reducing the monster, not so much to something less human, but more so, 'one of us' rather than 'one of them'.


“To compensate for the risk of simplifying, even traducing, complex characters, voice became vital. In
The Eighth Wonder of the World, Leslie Epstein opted to have Mussolini use two modes of speech, PONTIFICATING IN UPPER CASE LETTERS, and speaking in private like a pastiche Chico Marx. Since I'd already reduced my characters to an ambulatory fart and a penis on legs, I couldn't risk indulging myself in more childish humor, and so I used the words of my principals.

“This was a distressing experience, since to extract the observations and statements required for my dialogue, I was obliged to scan through the recorded pronouncements of two men who were nothing if not verbose and nothing if not prone to saying things any sensible person could do without hearing. It was another process of selecting and whittling, above all whittling, trying to get a balance between evoking their blatherings without inspiring readers to slope off and slit their own wrists, which would otherwise have been a very reasonable response to much of what the tyrants said.


“Many of the questions brought up by a fiction based on factual events revolve around veracity. The Afterword in
Hitler, Mussolini, and Me goes into some detail about this. At present, the only unacknowledged falsehood I am aware of in the book (though there are bound to be others, both of fact and interpretation) is the suggestion that the 1933 torching of the Reichstag was the work of the Nazis. This was long thought to be the case, but though the Nazis were quick to exploit the arson, most historians now agree that it was the work of a lone Dutch Communist. As for the rest, it's all true—or very like.

“Fact and fiction blur together, but the balance of probability does not necessarily mean one is more or less true than the other. They provide different realities according to how they are perceived. And the reality I wanted to convey was that Hitler and Mussolini were people. Most people are absurd, even ludicrous. So were Hitler and Mussolini. You don't need to believe everything I tell you. But I do need to tell it in such a way that you are willing to suspend disbelief for the duration. Then you can create a reality of your own. Hopefully, one that both informs and makes you laugh.

“It
is all true, though. Really, trust me. I'm a writer.”



I look forward to your comments both on this blog, by email to me, and to Charles as well at chadavis@gmail.com


Marty  

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