Novelist confesses: It’s probably all about me.
Words & images © Paul Ransom
One of my early readers – let’s call him Dave…although his real name is Dave – made an astute comment about the novel I have just had published. Having known me for several years it was plain to him that the fictional world of the book was a stylised and more narratively concise version of the somewhat messier realm I normally inhabit.
“I also smiled at the many conversations that echoed discussions we have shared about your life observations and philosophies, and of course the colourful mix of autobiographical traits scattered across various characters.”
There are many artists who cringe when asked if their work is autobiographical but, as a novelist, I feel compelled to confess that my fiction feeds directly, sometimes brutally, on the plot points and psychodramas of self. But it doesn’t end there. I also feast on the blood and gore of friends, family and random strangers. In fact, anyone and everyone who veers too close.
Write about what you know. Isn’t that what they say? Little wonder The Last Summer of Hair is suffused with detail drawn from my own experience, and from my observations of those unlucky enough to fall within the cannibalising orbit of my literary appetite. Dave will not be the only one of my friends to detect unerringly familiar motifs in the book’s 292 self-referential pages. Indeed, some of those closest to me will wonder if it’s them I was writing about. (Truth is, it often was.)
However, none of this is particularly unique. Fiction is frequently rooted in fact. Believable characters appear real. Furthermore, authors have been mining the seam of Self & Co since authorship was invented. I am simply another in a long line of creative cannibals, slicing and dicing the people I know to create text based avatars. That The Last Summer of Hair is not so far removed from the reality many will recognise – and that the inner lives of its characters will strike some as uncannily like their own – is both deliberate and serendipitous. The former because that was my intention, the latter because core human truths are shared; even by professional liars like me.
To write ‘realistic’ (or character driven) fiction is therefore to be engaged in a number of parallel pursuits:
- Voyeurism and eavesdropping
- Amateur psychology
- The ruthless appropriation and exploitation of other people’s suffering
- Self-serving revisionism and mythologisation
- Flagrant exhibitionism
Fellow scribes might baulk at this, but I have long since disavowed myself of the notion that I am singularly inspired to write by a noble desire for some kind of higher truth or vision of a greater humanity. While these things do play a part in the process – and hopefully the outcome – I cannot deny that I routinely pilfer the private lives of self and others, or that I airbrush the details into more pleasing and/or dramatic forms. Perhaps, if I wasn’t making art out of it, you might think me rather predatorial.
All of which brings me to the newly published novel. The title alone probably screams mid-life crisis – and although I would prefer to call The Last Summer of Hair a multi-character coming of age mosaic, each of the four main protagonists and their respective arcs are distillations of a deeply personal journey of transformation. While true they contain aspects of others, and large doses of pure creation, they all walk roads I have recently travelled.
Though we may dismiss this as either laziness or the routine navel gazing of the self-obsessed artist, the novel writing process is much more than mirror worship. Ever since I began to pen gushing adolescent froth back in the 1980s I have understood that there is something nigh existential about the intellectual and emotional practice of fiction. These days I have a pithy phrase for it.
Transform it into beauty.
This might sound like shallow prettying-up. Like wrapping paper on a brick. Except that beauty – profound beauty – brooks no denial and pays no heed to good looks. Beauty, it turns out, is a brutal beholder. 1
In other words, the act of ‘beautifying’ the narratives of self and meaning becomes a mechanism of truly seeing. Of observing central patterns, and beyond that meta-patterns. It is a drill down. A deconstructive process that culminates in a form of rebuild. Think, fiction as therapy. As if to is to reveal, even by approximation, is to heal.
The author eye (or God/Muse voice) takes a helicopter view that offers not merely the spectacle of catharsis but the compassion of distance. Perspective. In fact, it is as near to being the other as I am likely to get.
- Many artists have noted this paradox. It’s the actor/watcher thing. Be the dance, not the dancer, and so on. Aside from any attendant mysticism or claims of enlightenment, this works to dissolve the controls of ego and melt the certainties of entrenched belief – especially those we have about ourselves. Thus, vain though artistry can seem, at its core it offers a means of getting over yourself.
Whatever I or anyone else think of the finished article, the process of writing The Last Summer of Hair was part of an exhaustive mid-life reassessment. It is the neatly encapsulated, fictionalised version. Less rational than its immediate predecessor – a non-fiction work from 2019 called The Pointless Revolution, which sought to unpack the intellectual and philosophical dimensions of life change – it represents the emotional realities of making peace with oneself and moving on from ruinous self-talk and other destructive patterns. The ‘coming of age’ of the four leads is, of course, my arc. A journey from melodramatic self-loathing and habitual dysfunction to the equanimity and simplicity of being glad to be alive.
However, in saying this, I am cognisant of the inflations of ‘testimony’ and the soapy tropes of transformation. This is not lame, three act, Hollywood inspiro-porn. I am not the superhero novelist saving himself from suicidal despair in a flash of orchestrated literary revelation. The reality is less linear, more ambiguous and far more satisfying. While the novel (and this piece) are narrative reductions, the lived experience is yielding significantly better dividends than the standard popcorn pay-off.
Because fiction and reality operate in a complex feedback loop. Cannibalise, regurgitate. Reduce, amplify. Borrow, return. At a personal level, it’s been a dance of mutual emergence – story feeding on life, life feeding on story, lines often blurred. While narcissistic excess, self-drama and delusional thinking are the inherent risks of the process, the ‘storifying’ of my experiences and psycho-emotional states feels more like compassionate realisation than an act of attention seeking grandiosity or victim mania.
Notice how I said feels like – for I simply cannot be sure. Perhaps, in the end, all this so-called analysis and revealing honesty is performative and glaringly self-promotional. Obviously, I want you to buy my book, and thereafter say nice things about it.
After all, compassionate realisation doesn’t exclude me accepting that I am – at least partly – a vain, approval seeking opportunist who ruthlessly exploits both his own torments and those of his friends for the purposes of drama and entertainment. The Last Summer of Hair might just be a literary Colosseum, where the rarefied blood sport of writing leaves its victims brutally exposed and bleeding to death.
Don’t get me wrong; I love being an artist, but what I have learnt across decades of practise is that artmaking isn’t necessarily an act of love. Telling pretty fibs has shown me to myself, and the picture isn’t always pretty. But I’m okay with that – for just as we learn to accept that our work will always contain imperfections and that editing cannot go on forever, it helps us to extend the same acceptance to ourselves.
And if that sounds like the classic coming age story arc…so be it. Did anyone say autobiographical?
The Last Summer of Hair is published by Truth Serum Press and is available in print & electronic formats.
1: Here, I understand the term ‘beauty’ in a way that does not exclude what we might call ugliness. Neither am I legislating symmetry, golden ratios or Aristotelian arcs. Strange though it may sound, the beauty I cherish exists both within and outside the work I engage with, as either creator or audience. With the novel, the text is beautified, the writing process was beautiful. Together, the twin beauties were transformative – allowing an unusually revelatory view of nominally ordinary circumstances. Teasing it further apart, my sense is that, in both the form and the function of creativity, I experience beauty as a mode of seeing; as though the manner of beholding is the true locus of beauty. If this seems a tad vague, it is – and I like it that way. After all, mystery tantalises in a way that full disclosure rarely does.