Terentia is invited to speak at a local library about writing. A well known but ageing author, her latest manuscript has just been declined by her agent, so she’s in a sour mood. But at the library, she meets a young woman who asks her to appraise her first novel….
Paul is a Catholic school teacher. Disillusioned with teaching, he volunteers as a prison visitor, and is assigned Trevor, a notorious hitman soon to be up for parole. Trevor tells him that he wants to become a pastor when he gets out, and would like to talk with Paul about the Bible…
I made these people up. You’d think, therefore, that I’d know what happens next, but I don’t. Is Terentia’s young fan any good? Has Trevor really contracted religion? I don’t know (yet). I’m still waiting for them to tell me.
And yet, what’s the basis of all this? How do I know how Paul feels about his class of uninterested adolescents? How do I know what it’s like for Terentia to receive her first rejection in forty years? How can anyone know – they’re not real people.
This raises a real question for me as a writer, though. It’s true to say that the only person I really know is myself (and I wouldn’t say we’re that close, mind you). Next to that, I know a little about the inner lives of my friends and relatives (from what they tell me, and pop psychology). So Terentia and Paul’s entire fictional personalities are built using the template of ‘me plus my mates’. Can any author really draw on more than that?
Which means that fiction is basically an elaborately constructed portrait of (relevant extracts of) the author’s inner life plus the guessed at inner lives of people he or she has met. Apart from entertainment, then, what universal truths can it offer us?