Joy to the world: Ali Bacon looks at the problems of merging fact and fiction

When my friend muddled the cinema times and we failed to make The Danish Girl, I wasn’t too disappointed because we plumped for Joy instead. I'd heard good reports of it and was interested to see what Jennifer Lawrence (known to me only through Hunger Games ) would make of the role of a beleaguered mother with an entrepreneurial streak.
In the end I did enjoy the film but in some respects was disappointed. The opening depended too much on clips from a TV soap opera  to set out the theme of ‘strong woman’. Nor did I feel we needed so much back story of how Joy met her live-in ex and the previous run-ins with her father and half-sister. But then I never was keen on back-story-dump, however engaging the back story might be.
As soon as Joy invented her miracle mop, the pace picked up and the plot had its own momentum, but there were still sticking points for me  - what did the grandmother add apart from a voice-over? (No I don’t like voice-overs either!) and motifs from Joy's early life were dragged in, as if the point of it all needed pinning down.  (Business tycoon just happens to have the childhood toy she designed in a cardboard box by her desk …?)

How to do it well!
But what really interests me is that Joy is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, claiming to be a fictionalised and inspirational version of her life rather than a ‘straight bio-pic’ (if such a thing exists). As a result I was moved to dig up some background to the story including this article from Vanity Fair on how the director David O. Russell combined fact and fiction. And as someone who has tried (and so far failed!) to write just this kind of account of a real life (in novel form) I’m suddenly filled with sympathy for the screenwriter, even more so when I take in the amount of research he did on (and with) his subject.

Of course there are many examples of successful biographical fiction  – Mantel and Cromwell spring instantly to mind! - but I’ve also found quite a few that, like Joy, fall short of perfection. (It seems invidious to list them, but for me Jill Dawson's Rupert Brooke didn't really fly and I gave up on David Lodge's H. G. Wells, although a biographer friend liked it a lot. You can find one I did like here.)

Not so sure about this one
My own problem has been that the more facts I uncover the less I want to deviate from them. And however dramatic a life-story seems to be, it rarely meets the structures of satisfying fiction.This, surely, is the reason why historical novelists often use a fictional or little-known character on which to hang the main thrust of a story in which the well-known historical figure is part of the backdrop rather than the main player.  (Something discovered by Margaret Skea in this interesting account of her own first novel.)

Authors of biography - even fictional biography -  are bound to hold their subjects in a kind of respect and I suspect this has hampered the writing of Joy. Some fictional elements have been added – the evil half-sister, and the apparently unresolved sexual tension between Joy and the man who steered her through her early TV appearances. I’m also gratified to find the voiceover grandma was an add-on! But somehow these plot-lines, which could have provided key story arcs, don’t feel fully realised – because, I suppose, they didn’t in the end impinge on what happened to the real Joy.

Although I abandoned my novel a while ago, I’ve discovered it hasn’t abandoned me and I’m now approaching it from a different angle by writing from a number of viewpoints and without any reference to ‘the facts’ beyond the most obvious historical turning-points. We’ll see how far I get this time!

But not everyone finds it quite so hard and I’m looking forward to Catherine Czerkawska’s forthcoming The Jewel – based on the life of Jean Armour, wife of Rabbie Burns. 
I’m sure she’s worked out just how to tackle the merging of fact and fiction.

Ali Bacon writes novels and short fiction. 
Her first published novel, A Kettle of Fish is set in Fife and Edinburgh.
It's available as e-book or paperback from the usual places!


Jan Needle said…
Great stuff, Ali. I've been working recently on Nelson and Napoleon. One lionised out of sight, the other demonised, by English writers at least. Finding a fictional line through them is wonderful fun, but it don't half give me a headache!
Bill Kirton said…
Interesting Ali, and particularly so because yesterday, with my historical WIP's protagonist needing to check a religious reference, I discovered by accident the name of the actual minister of his local church at the time (1841). It saved me the trouble of making up yet another name (which always takes longer than it should), but also, in my mind at least, it brought a sense of authenticity to the fiction. I think I'd be scared to take on Jan's Nelson/Napoleon challenge, but an unknown, unimportant but REAL minister of a small church was just the job.
AliB said…
Hi Jan - I am in awe that you are taking on such big names! Should be amazing when you crack it! Did I see your name in a Historical fiction bookfest thing going on? A.
glitter noir said…
Great piece, Ali. Rupert Brooke used to be a great poetic passion of mine. But I'm not surprised that the bio didn't hold up. His life was too short...and his personality too vague, I think. Her never fully developed. As for too many historical facts, any of the long Roman epics of Colleen McCullough prove the danger of too much research. Or rather the danger of using too much research.
Jan Needle said…
Ooh dont lionise me as well! What I mean is I've written the first two of a series of novellas about Nelson, and one (probably so far) on Nap. I just lurve history...
Thanks so much for the mention, Ali - but you flatter me, I think. I'm just having one of those 'what have I done?' spells - but it'll pass! This is such an interesting post about such a can of worms though. How much do we make up? How do we approach something like this? How do we make it sufficiently dramatic? How do we avoid giving offence to devotees? Should we even try?
Like Jan, I love history, love the research so much that I have to force myself to stop and write the damn book. I wrote The Jewel very much from the point of view of Jean - but took a decision early on that it had to be in the third person. All of which helped. I could stick to the facts as I unearthed them but give myself a certain distance and perspective. It also helped that she has been so neglected over the years - I went back to primary sources like parish records, and found out things that fed into the story - many of which didn't seem to have been covered before, but which seemed very dramatic to me. One interesting thing to emerge was the reason why - in my opinion anyway - so many projects about Burns himself haven't quite worked. They try to ignore what seems to have been the central relationship of his short life, in favour of the various love affairs he had on the side - all deeply romantic, but mostly short lived. And yet that central relationship is undoubtedly more dramatic than all the rest. But you're right. It's all difficult. And whether my version of Jean and Rab is anywhere near the truth remains to be seen! Good luck with your project. I think having done the research you should go for it and see where it takes you. Some projects just have to be written.
AliB said…
Thanks Catherine, yes, I have to write this thing eventually whatever it turns out to be. I think Jean is a great subject because she hasn't had much 'exposure'. Time to set that right!
Lydia Bennet said…
I love history and research, and some of my work especially my plays are about real people. Of course we have to imagine conversations, scenes, etc, but I'm totally against these faked 'biopics' which become facts in the minds of viewers not only of the film but people who read taglines and descriptions online - I don't think it's right to invent pivotal events that didn't happen or evil twins or anything else there is no evidence for. Basically the writers are exploiting the fact that dead people can't sue, and it's a kind of laziness as well - instead of inventing their own characters and story, they piggy back on someone else's and then sex it up as if it were fiction. There's no reason they can't sex it up all they want, say it's 'based on part of the true story of XYZ' and then give the characters fictional names.But then I feel we write about real people to show what they've done or suffered or been, and to give them a voice, often one denied them by history, culture, religion, class, race, gender, so to distort that with wild inventions seems wrong to me. But TV is full of it!

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