Q: What's your advice for fictionalizing real life, and still making it true to (what we can know) about the actual events?
In The Devil You Know, I placed a very fictional character among very real events: my fictional news reporter, Evie Jones, finds herself covering the arrest of Paul Bernardo in February, 1993. That was fraught enough writing as it was, but Evie also has a back story – when she was eleven, her own best friend was abducted and murdered, and she’s also trying to solve this cold case on the sly, using the tools handed to her in her newsroom job. The lost girl, Lianne Gagnon, was a fictional mélange of the girls I remembered going missing from my own Toronto childhood, including high profile cases Sharin’ Keenan and Alison Parrott, among others.
All of this caused me no small degree of anxiety. I wanted the book to do the work of elegy for these girls, but I also wanted to talk about the very real fear that my generation grew up with – it’s hard to talk about the fear without talking about the crimes and the media attention they inspired.
One of the ways I coped with this was enlisting Evie as a witness, rather than actually casting her as a true-life character. As a reporter and researcher, Evie plays the role of the reader in the book: finding facts and interpreting them. Although I wouldn’t say so in every case, in this particular story, it was important to me not to co-opt any of the actual victim’s stories – so Evie remains a wholly made-up character.
I tried to be careful about which details I included in the book. This was as much to avoid overwhelming the reader as it was to avoid sensationalizing the violence. I did as much research as I could bear, and picked and chose what might make it into the book. Dropping a few recognizable details increases the real-feel of the novel, and makes, I think, the fictional bits seem more true, as well.
There are some really good examples of recent books that fictionalize a real-life person’s story: Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors comes to mind, a novel loosely based on the life of Leon Termen, the inventor of the theramin; also Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist, a novel that imagines Houdini’s life as a spy. Ultimately, as fiction writers, our job is to make sense of reality and try to explain it in narrative form, to try to create context and beauty at the same time. I don’t think we need conflate fiction with biography. What I mean is, it’s not supposed to be true, it’s just supposed to feel that way.
More about Elisabeth...
Elisabeth de Mariaffi is the Giller Prize-nominated author of one book of short stories, How To Get Along With Women (Invisible Publishing, 2012) and the new novel, The Devil You Know (HarperCollins, Canada; Simon & Schuster, USA 2015).
Her poetry and short fiction have been widely published in magazines across Canada. In 2013, her story “Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth” was shortlisted for a National Magazine Award.
Elisabeth now makes her home in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she lives with the poet George Murray, their combined four children and a border collie — making them CanLit’s answer to the Brady Brunch.
Upccoming events! Catch Elisabeth at Vancouver Writers Fest this October. More information here: https://www.writersfest.bc.ca/2015/authors/elisabeth-de-mariaffi