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“Have you met any single mums?”

 

Have you met any single mums?

Have you met any single mums?

This question was asked of me by a woman, a stranger, who happened to be sitting on my terrace with a few other strangers – I don’t remember the event. She asked this question immediately after I answered her question about what am I writing now. “I’m writing about a  thirty five year old single mum with a very unusual occupation who lives in Newtown,” I said, and so, she asked her question.
I said something like “Not specifically but I’ve known a lot of single mums in my time.” I think I then got up, poured more drinks, handed around more nuts, and smiled inanely while festering inside was the conversation that should’ve happened: something like this …
“I’m not writing a documentary.”
“No, but don’t you think you should write about what you know?”
“I’m writing fiction, not a biography of a single mum.”
“No, I get that, but readers like a ring of truth.”
“Do they?”
“Well yes, don’t they?”
“Only if they read non-fiction. I’m writing fiction. I’m making it up.”
“But don’t you want people to believe you?”
“Of course, that’s part of the deal. When you read fiction you agree to believe it: you know it’s made up but you suspend your disbelief in order to enjoy the story; it’is a sideline of our imagination.”
“But I want to know that the writer can be trusted to tell me a believable story. I don’t know, I just want to trust the writer.”
“But by buying a book of fiction you already know it’s made up, you accept it as fiction. A fiction writer starts way out in front in the believability stakes. Even a moderately good writer knows not to blow a lead like that.”
“But he would blow it if he didn’t know what he’s writing about.”
“If I was writing a manual on how to be a good single mum or a study on the lives of single mums living in Sydney then, yes, I agree that I would need to meet and talk to a lot of single mums, but I’m not writing a book like that.”
“Isn’t the life of a single mum very different from yours?”
“Not really.”
“What?”
“I think the pressures are the same, I don’t live alone, I have other people to consider and I have other people I’m responsible for, and I believe that, basically, men and women respond to life in the same range of reactions, but one thing I don’t think readers want is to read the familiar; they want to read the unusual.”
“Yes, but, the unusual within believable bounds.”
“How many witches and warlocks did JK Rowling interview; how many vampires did Stephenie Meyer interview; and how many men-tuned-into-bugs did Kafka interview?”
“But they’re fantasy novels.”
“Did you believe the Harry Potter stories?”
“No, they’re fantasy.”
“I mean IN the story: did you feel excited, on-the-edge of your seat.”
“Sometimes.”
“Well there you are, you believed it. You’re heart wouldn’t race if you didn’t believe it.”
“Single mums aren’t fantasy.”
“Let me tell you a story. Astronauts never get bowel cancer because before they climb into their high-tech suits, for rehearsal or for the real thing, they have to have an enema. Now if I wrote a story about an astronaut who gets bowel cancer would you believe me or would you throw the book against the wall because I didn’t know what I was writing about?”
“I don’t know; it would be the way it was told.”
“Do you believe that astronauts could get bowel cancer?”
“Well, I didn’t know that, that, enema thing that astronauts do?”
“What, don’t you believe they have to have enemas?”
“No, it’s not that. They do I suppose; sounds feasible.”
“Good because I just made it up. I don’t know anything about astronauts and enemas; but you were willing to believe it. You were willing to believe made up stuff.”
“… I just don’t think that a sixth two year old gay man living in Bali should he writing about a thirty five year old single mum living in Newtown.”
“…..more nuts?”

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4 thoughts on ““Have you met any single mums?”

  1. Sandra Yates says:

    I think you were crazy brave to begin your first public work of fiction with Veronica – so bravo you! I can’t believe I would have sufficient imagination to put myself in the mind of a gay man. But imagination is only a part of the skill set required to write successful fiction surely. Experience, honesty, insight, empathy, verbal dexterity are all equally important I would have thought. As is the ability to build a fully-rounded picture of any given individual. The Virginia Woolf piece was interesting and while I agree that her playfulness and her beauty are important elements of the VW picture I do not accept that her diaries give an “unfortunate” picture of her. Her illness was integral to who she was – no understanding of her is complete without it. Leonard desperately needed to believe he made Virginia happy – so one can understand he would find the diaries difficult, but they are indispensable to an understanding of her and her writing.

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    • I see your point about VW but you say ‘her illness was integral to who she was.’ I don’t agree with this; I think her illness was integral to how we think of her. She wasn’t always ill; she knew what ‘well’ was and if she had her way she would’ve been well all the time. She kept a diary, like most writers, to work things out, and what she wanted to work out most of all was her illness: diary entries tend to be about the ‘bad’, not about the ‘good’, a fact that Leonard tried to hold on to. She turned ‘plot’ from something exterior to something interior because her interior was where the interest lay. It must be hard for any life partner not to feel guilty at the suicide of the other, even though a suicide note can be, like hers, full of affection, honesty, and free of any accusation. The book that inspired my little essay was a small dusty volume left over from James Murdoch’s library where someone (I’m away from my bookshelves at the moment) compiled biographical anecdotes about VW from people who knew her, some well, others only slightly; and this led me to read more of her work and look into her life a little deeper.
      Anyway, thank you for your comments, and for reading my words. It’s an affirming feeling, warm with wonder, at someone reading something I wrote without being asked; and not only that, to then write to me about it. I’m very chuffed.

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