Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Real people are not an option.

I don’t know about you but sometimes I come across people who seem to beg to be in a book or at least a story. They have some idiosyncratic thing about them, speak or dress in an unusual way or have an approach to life which is very different from the norm. But even if I do try to ‘use’ them in that way, I never really succeed.

People have assumed, for example, that the fourth in my Jack Carston series, Shadow Selves, which is set mainly in and around the fictitious University of West Grampian, must draw on personal experiences. Why? Because I used to teach at the very real University of Aberdeen so it’s perhaps natural to think that the people and things I describe may be based on ex-colleagues or repeat things that actually happened to me or them. But they’re not, except insofar as I know the general academic atmosphere, the demands and privileges of working in such an institution and the small p politics in which some teachers and researchers delight.

In fact, the book was triggered by a visit to an operating theatre while an operation was in progress. It was arranged by a friend who was an anaesthetist and I’ve reproduced some details of what being an observer in such a context was like in the scene where Carston visits the hospital to check their procedures.

The people are certainly fictitious. Books always carry the careful ‘any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is coincidental’ disclaimer but I have to say that, even though you’ll find it in my books, it isn’t really needed. I may borrow how someone looks, or copy what he/she wears, but using a real person as a model just doesn’t work for me. I only tried it once, in my early writing days, and I found that my awareness and knowledge of the actual person prevented my character from growing and being himself. As I said, a writer ‘uses’ a real model because there’s something special or unique about that person – he/she is wonderful or despicable. My man was the latter but he wasn’t my character – indeed, as my character tried to react, the ‘real’ person kept getting in the way. In the end, I had to free the character and let his nastiness develop in the way he wanted to express and live it. The only resemblance between him and my ‘model’ was that he turned out to be more charismatic (in a horrible way). But I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with either of them.

So anyone reading Shadow Selves and expecting to recognise x, y or z will be disappointed. What they will get, though, is a sense of the strange world of academia – a rarefied place where high culture and low cunning co-exist and some individuals continue to be blissfully unaware of how privileged they are to be safe in their ivory tower. Oh, and they’ll get a couple of deaths, a stalker and a case of sexual harassment.

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