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!|
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|
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!
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.
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.