It's the Brisbane Writers Festival this week! Despite having a modest writing career already, this is the first time I've went to a writers' festival. I wasn't sure what to expect, but since I was enrolled in the Creative Writing program at QUT, it was mandatory that I attend something. So, I chose a few workshops to attend.
This afternoon I attended a workshop by Simon Cleary http://simoncleary.com/about/ about "Weaving Fact into Fiction". I have always valued research and authenticity in fiction, so I thought this would be a useful workshop, and it was.
Simon did suggest we try digging up some local history as research material before the workshop, but I wasn't inspired, so I came to the class with a biography of Vladimir Vladimirovich, and about one decade's worth of research in my head.
We spent about 2 hours discussing about the challenges of basing stories on real events and people.
- getting sued because you offended someone
- telling other peoples' stories without offending them
- how to position the characters
- song lyrics, poems--original authors will ask for royalties (OK to quote title, but lyrics are copyrighted)
- getting facts right--give it to experts to read to receive feedback
Author's notes--what to include:
- this is a work of fiction
- acknowledge sources
Some of us in the group had a harder time getting people to tell their stories. When asked, some people just clam up. On the other hand, most people are eager to share their stories. I gave an example of this. Many years ago, when Putin was still wildly popular, everyone seemed to have a Putin story. I read about a journalist who was writing an article about Putin back then. She was swamped with so many people wanting to tell their little stories about Putin that she had to resort to putting a sign up on her door:
"No more Putin stories!"
Maybe that should be the title of my new book, someone mused. Perhaps. It's amazing how one man's life spans so many stories.
So, Simon says, write a short story in 45 minutes. I ask him for a suggestion. "Give me a story about how Putin's father reacts when he hears his son has joined the KGB."
So I did. Here it is:
Even if he or I didn't know it, I had groomed my son to be a conquerer. That was why I gave him my name,Vladimir--ruler of the world. He took after me, to be quiet. But instead of being the strong, silent type, he instead was meek and easily victimised. I had doubts he would make it that far; he was always bullied at school, and always arrive at school late and leave early so that he would not have to face them. Later, he took to hooliganism--forming a little gang--in order to face his bullies. But it only got him into more trouble. He was also a poor student, unmotivated and unkempt. Then, all of a sudden, it changed. I couldn't figure out why then. That was, until he told me about his job offer.
We didn't speak; we just did things together, as I suppose, fathers and sons do. We went fishing, casting our lines side by side, smiling, but not saying a word. I played the accordion, and we'd sing along. War songs we loved the best. After all, I was a NKVD veteran. Volodya (that was his pet name), like every other boy at that time, had a fascination with the Beatles, and I would indulge him by trying to sing along as he strummed his guitar--much to his amusement. It was during one of these singing sessions, he told me.
"Papa, I want to be like you."
"That's great, son," I replied, but not knowing what to make of it.
"Papa, you were in the NKVD, right?"
He never asked me about that before. In fact, he somehow knew that I never wanted to talk about that. But he knew. I figured it was my wife Marina who told him my war stories on my behalf. The NKVD was the KGB's predecessor, and we helped in the war effort by carrying out sabotage missions against the Nazis.
"Lets sing The Sacred Banner once more, shall we? I just learnt a new arrangement," I replied.
He knew from my tone of voice that the conversation should not go into that direction.
We sang, kind of half-heartedly this time. Then, mid-verse, he stopped strumming his guitar.
"Papa, I was approached by someone from the... the agencies. They are interested in me. I took up the job offer."
I stopped playing the accordion. That sly fox, so that's what's been happening! All that judo stuff, all those spy novels, spending money at the cinema to watch spy movies, and of all things, STUDYING! Studying German, history, and psychology--and getting top grades! Studying law at Leningrad State University!
I wanted to hug and kiss him, but we never did that. I wanted to say, "Son, you've done me proud!" but I didn't want to, because, the same time, I wanted to dissuade him from joining the KGB. Being a spy in the war was different from being one now, in the 70s, but even then, it was hard, and often dangerous work.
But somehow, I wasn't surprised that he was recruited, and that he would accept the offer. That scrawny boy who was always bullied was always trying to fight back. He never trusts anyone, nor does he forgive. Because he never had the size or strength, he could not defend himself physically, so he would have to find other, smarter ways to defeat his enemies. That was what spying was all about. I was sure he would be a good officer in the agencies.
"That's great, son," I said.
"But I can't really tell Mama. In fact, I wasn't even supposed to tell you."
"Then don't. It'll be our little secret."
He smiled, and said not another word.
Alright, no more Putin stories... for now.
Wrapping up, on researching for fiction--
1. Story is king/queen (research serves fiction, not the other way around)
2. Avoid the garden path (i.e. when to stop)
3. How many spokes on a wagon wheel? (does that little fact really matter?)
4. Other peoples' stories (and danger of offense or defamation)
5. Theft--beware! Always reference your notes.