Saturday 21 July 2018

Making it up as I go along - Emily Hourican prepares for her debut novel

As Emily Hourican prepares to publish her first novel, she considers the appeal of fact versus fiction in writing

Emily Hourican
Emily Hourican

Writers sometimes go on about the loneliness of their existence; the solitary hours spent with a computer screen and no outer-world interaction; the way a visit by the postman can really break up a day. Most of the rest of the world weighs up these claims against the more usual "Get out of bed at 6.30am, on a freezing Monday, for an hour-long commute to work, where I hate my boss", and swiftly dismisses them, to the soundtrack of the world's smallest violin.

As a freelance journalist, I have always had a small amount of sympathy with the writerly moans. However, now, as a journalist-turned-novelist, I realise that the writers are focussing on the wrong things.

I don't mind the solitude. I am well used to spending entire days alone, in my pyjamas. I am equally used to the lack of any kind of collaborative creative process beyond an initial brief - "Write 1,000 words about that guy who started the tech company. Make it good" - and the fact that when you hit 'send' on those words, you have only your own judgment to tell you if they are actually good or not.

But now that I have written my first (completed) novel - The Privileged - I can say that what has really bothered me about the process is moving from fact to fiction, and the corresponding move from objectivity (of a kind, anyway) to subjectivity.

Journalism is, at its best, a search for truth. Writing novels is basically Making Stuff Up. And the gulf between the two is a bit dizzying; it's Sartre's existential vertigo - what is to stop you throwing yourself off the edge of a cliff? Likewise, in a world without rules (I know there are 'rules' in literature, but they are obscure and self-imposed, more like a pre-Leveson voluntary code of press conduct, really), what is to stop you simply rambling on, like a drunk with a runaway anecdote?

For someone trained-up in trying to convey an actual reality as accurately as possible, setting off to invent things is, of course, great fun, but also slightly disconcerting. I mean, what are the standards, the yardsticks, when real-world accuracy has nothing to do with it? How do you judge something when simply creating it has violated the first principle of good journalism?

It's not that I have never been tempted to invent a little something here and there for some of the people I have interviewed over the years - embellish a boring life just a teeny bit - but I have never done it (obviously), because that would be to crash through the sacred principle of the trade.

And so, it is hard to work out at what point the 'creative freedom' of invention simply turns into self-indulgent ramblings? Just because it's made-up, doesn't mean it's a great novel. Along with the 'setting free of the imagination' process, there has to be a good deal of reining-in, too.

So what do you get to take with you on the move? Well, there is some crossover. When trying to work out if, say, the interview I have just written up is any good, there are a few basic questions to ask myself: Have I conveyed a sense of this person as close as possible to the sense I obtained? Have I revealed enough of their backstory to illuminate the present? Have I presented them as a person with a compelling motivation to do what they are doing? Those things are really just as important with made-up characters. They may not be 'real', but in order to feel convincing, they need to have those things addressed.

The habit of finishing is a good one too, as is the habit of taking criticism (no matter how politely your editor asks for a rewrite, criticism is what it is). And then, of course, there is the gradual hardening of self into someone who can put something out into the world without feeling as if they have entered a loud public popularity contest. A person who can accept that not everyone will like or admire what they have done. I think I've learned all the lessons. Except the last one.

'The Privileged' is published by Hachette Books Ireland on April 14

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