Discovery through Story

by Sulari Gentill

Part 4: Self

Within the universe of a novel, its author is a kind of god, an elemental force directing the fates of characters, conjuring crises and granting reprieves. She creates life… people who jump from the text to walk into the imaginations of readers. Protagonists who exist independently of her, continuing to make friends from the printed page long after their author has expired.

In my previous posts for the Southerly I have discussed elements of the story which may be discovered in and through the creative process of writing. In this instalment I’m turning the spotlight back onto the writer, to consider the impact the act of writing has on her, what she discovers about herself through the lives she has created and followed.

I’m afraid there will be very little academic rigour in this particular article – my evidence is anecdotal and personal. And it is necessarily biased by perspective – my own. But then it is the subjective nature of the relationship between an author and her protagonist that breathes life into character, so perhaps that’s as it should be.

I wrote A Few Right Thinking Men, the first book of the Rowland Sinclair series, in 2009. Since then there have been five further books, over the course of which my protagonist has changed. That’s not surprising of course. He’s been through rather a lot… one would expect it to have some impact.

Unlike Rowland, I have not been shot, strangled, bitten by snakes, choked, tortured or imprisoned in the last five years (or ever). My traumas have been limited to deadlines, the editing process, the occasional public flogging of a bad review and the realisation that becoming a writer was not the most financially sensible decision I ever made. And yet, Rowland and I have changed in quite similar ways.

When the series opened, Rowland Sinclair was a young man consumed by his art. He was not ignorant or heartless, but he was indifferent to politics. He just wanted to be left alone to paint. In many ways his writer felt the same way. Although I did have a vague theoretical affiliation to left-of-centre politics, I operated under the belief that in this country the actual differences between the Left and Right were negligible. I had been brought up with the idea that politics, like religion, was not to be mentioned in polite company. And essentially, I just wanted to be left alone to write.

But I had chosen to write about a young artist living in the 1930s, an era of social upheaval and political hysteria and polarisation. The decade was the vat in which fermented all the passions, prejudices and philosophies that gave rise to the Second World War. In each book Rowland is faced with the early manifestations of what would later play out as the Holocaust. In trying to understand his world, I read the newspapers of the time and scrutinised the events and personalities of the early thirties. There were things that were startlingly familiar, a recognisable pattern of events and manipulations, a similar demonisation of sections of the community and the use of fear in order to justify contraventions of the rule of law and human rights. As Rowland Sinclair has become progressively more uneasy, progressively more outraged, so too have I.

Political beliefs aside, I am intrigued by the cause and effect of this. It may seem, on the face of it, that my increasing engagement with the politics of my time is manifesting in my protagonist, that his developing social conscience is a projection of my own. But I’m not sure that this is truly what has occurred.

source: The Argus, 1938

Rowland Sinclair was probably always going to become more politically active… his personality, his background, the murder of his uncle by the Fascist Legion, his radical left-wing friends, all make it almost impossible for him to continue to just paint. I’m fairly sure that he would have changed in this way even if I had continued to be completely indifferent to the politics of today. It has occurred to me though, that perhaps the influence moves in the other direction.

I had always envisaged Rowland as a man of integrity. He is, as I have written him, essentially a decent man. I wonder then if his increasing activism has provided me with a kind of example. Does the fact that he stands up to be counted rather than hiding behind his art inspire me to speak on issues about which I might previously have remained diplomatically silent?

I mentioned in my first post that fiction allows the reader to empathise with or revile imagined characters, compare themselves and understand history through the passions, shortcomings and heroics of the human condition. This is also true for the writer. Possibly, it’s simply that following Rowland has given me an insight into the circumstances which preceded World War II, and so, recognising similar circumstances now, I can no longer dismiss them as passing aberrations.

Whatever the exact process at play, it does seem to me that I am changing in the same direction as the man I’ve created. It feels like he is leading that change, but of course that can’t be true. Rowland Sinclair was conceived inside my head: a combination of conscious decisions and subconscious motivations.   Perhaps, through him, I’m exploring where I stand, testing my own reactions and limits. Perhaps the relationship between author and protagonist, like that between character and plot, is mutually influential and circular.

4 thoughts on “Discovery through Story

  1. An apposite piece – I imagine coincidentally so, but still – given the recent furor Eleanor Catton’s comments at the Jaipur Literature Festival have generated. It seems a common misconception is that writing (and artistic endeavour of any kind, I imagine) can or even ought to be contained within a romantic, hermetic seal, never to backwash into the coextensive misconception of an objective, material reality. Of course if that were so, one wonders what the point would be.

  2. You imagined correctly – I actually only read about Eleanor Catton’s comments and the reactions to them after seeing your comment. It does seem a convenient misconception that art is some kind of removed decoration, separate from the reality of humanity and its society… that artists exist in some kind of esoteric bubble. For me, at least, my work seems to sharpen the manner in which I view the world around me and also myself, and whilst I love writing stories for their own sake, it is the backwash that is the point.

  3. It’s interesting you mention that your findings are anecdotal and subjective because I’m starting to see the value in these modes of understanding. And this sort of thing is even being mentioned in academic literature. I am working on a historical novel about my ancestor who was Rev. in VDL and upon reading Rachel Morley’s article on ‘Life Writing’ I was struck by the idea of fiction being used for the purpose of history, which is something Richard Slotkins also mentions. It seems that in biography, the idea of the objective author is something to strive for. The self must be removed. But Morley questions this and suggests that it is precisely the personal and the subjective which can reveal certain facets of the past, and indeed, a person. Rather than limiting one’s understanding of the past by sticking to the “facts”, the novelist/researcher/historian can and should engage in the subjective and the personal. The experience of the research, the journey of discovery, all this takes part in the process of understanding, revealing important portions of history that should never be dismissed but praised and nurtured. And as a form I believe the novel is best able to express these diversities and complexities of life.

    Morley, R –
    Slotkins, R –

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