Douglas Cowie on Imagining the Spaces Between the Facts
20th May 2016
Douglas Cowie was born in Chicago and has lived in England and Berlin since 1999. He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. His first novel was Owen Noone and the Marauder, and he has published two linked novellas, Sing for Life: Tin Pan Alley and Sing for Life: Away, You Rolling River. His new novel, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, is a fictional reimagining of the turbulent relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and cult American writer, Nelson Algren, asking what it means to love and be loved by the right person at the wrong time.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Douglas talks about writing fiction in the gaps between known facts, and the responsibility of writing about real people. Below that, you can watch a video of Douglas talking about his book.
The Corners of Attachment - Imagining the Spaces between the Facts
I’ve never been particularly interested in reading fiction based on the lives and activities of real people, and I definitely never intended to write a novel about real people. I’d rather read — and write — made-up things about made-up people. Fiction bears a relationship to real life, as Virginia Woolf describes it, 'like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.' I like to think about those corners of attachment, and I like to think about how lightly or heavily the web sits across the face of life. When a novel is about the real things that real people did in their really lived real lives, that heaviness becomes, it seems to me, unbearable and distracting, or even a trap: I’m the hapless fly, stuck in the web, struggling until I’m wrapped up tight by the author.
But eventually I ended up writing a novel, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, based on the real-life 18-year relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. Several years ago, after reading Algren’s second novel, Never Come Morning, I started researching his life and work. It seemed impossible to me that a writer from my hometown of Chicago, whose name I’d known growing up, whose work was this powerful, could be so little known. Reading Bettina Drew’s excellent biography of Algren, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, I was stunned to learn he’d been, off and on for the better part of eighteen years, in a romantic relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and that this relationship had been important to them both, though it ended because, in a line of reasoning I would read in several places over the years, she wouldn’t leave Paris, and he wouldn’t leave Chicago. Nonetheless, despite the fact that he’d refused to have anything to do with her after the English-language publication of the second volume of her memoir, Force of Circumstance, and despite the fact that each of them was publicly dismissive of the other, and of their relationship, Beauvoir was buried wearing a silver ring Algren had bought for her in the first months of their relationship.
My research into Algren led to an outline for a nonfiction book project, including, among various biographical and literary analyses, a chapter on the relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. Eventually I wrote (and published as an essay) one chapter on Algren’s writing technique, but abandoned the rest of the project as I started work on the project that became my two Sing for Life novellas. Algren’s relationship with Beauvoir kept bothering me, however; or more accurately, the factual accounts and analyses of Algren’s relationship with Beauvoir kept bothering me: it just didn’t add up that this relationship, which existed in a kind of long-distance way for eighteen years, would end abruptly, be explained away relatively straightforwardly, and yet Beauvoir would continue to wear the ring as a momento, and be buried, next to Sartre, her famous lover/partner, wearing the ring from this other man. Eventually I succumbed to the persistence of this nagging gap, as well as the persistent nagging of a friend who more or less demanded I write the story as a novel, and began planning a fictional imagining of eighteen years of these two peoples’ lives.
I spent a few years researching and planning the novel before I started writing the first draft, and that time allowed me to develop some rules about how to approach the fictional imagining of the factual material. I say rules; excuses might be a better term. I probably made up more rules and excuses as I went along — any author’s account of the process of writing is inevitably a mixture of half-truths, misremembered-truths and flat-out lies — but the main rules of approach were:
- You can’t say they were someplace they weren’t. If they were in Chicago in 1947, you can’t say they were in Paris, or Mexico or Toronto or Nepal, etc.
- This is a novel about people living their lives, not a novel about writers or intellectuals writing and thinking deep thoughts. In fact, the main character isn’t either of those two people, it’s the relationship.
- It’s not a biography. You don’t have to say everything about everything that happened in a given day, week, month, year, life. Following this rule meant cutting thousands of words from the manuscript.
My job, then, was to take a structure based on facts I gathered from a variety of sources — they travelled here, they disagreed about that — and, using these rules or excuses as guiding principles, imagine the spaces in between those facts. In Poetics, Aristotle writes that the difference between history and poetry is that while history tells what did happen, poetry tells 'the kind of thing that could happen'. This relatively simple statement has become a kind of mantra with ever-expanding meaning to me as I’ve worked on Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago. On the one hand, it frees the author from facts that might otherwise become shackles: okay, they travelled to Mexico, but what could have happened while they were, and how do I imagine those possibilities into dramatic scenes? On the other hand, Aristotle’s statement also sounds a warning: could this happen? Does what I’m imagining here fit within my understanding — or an understanding — of who Nelson Algren was, and who Simone de Beauvoir was? The warning becomes a kind of ethical tether that keeps me from straying, albeit within an understanding that is my own invention, no matter how many facts I can point back to as starting points to that imagined understanding.
The point of writing a novel with characters who are based on real people is not to recreate the lives that were lived, but to imagine the gaps between the available facts in order to create an imaginative whole that becomes a kind of understanding. Is my version of Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren the thing that happened? No, of course it isn’t; but it is the kind of thing that could happen, and in that potential lies the value of fiction: what I learn as the writer of the novel, and what I hope you learn as the reader of the novel, is not the facts of Algren or Beauvoir or Algren and Beauvoir — though some of those get learned, incidentally, as we go along. Rather, what I learn as the writer of a fiction based on a part of the lives of real people, and what you learn as the reader of that fiction, is an interpretation: not the facts lined up with a neat explanation, but an imagined and imaginary complement to those facts, which both enlivens and extends what is known.
The corners of the web of fiction are attached not only to the lives of these characters, but to the lives of the writer and reader as well: the act of imagining through writing, reading and telling stories becomes in and of itself a means of understanding not only some otherwise inexplicable idea or truth about Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren, but also, some equally inexplicable idea or truth about ourselves. I hope, too, though, that Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago will lead readers back to my own starting point, and the works of imagination and intellect that Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir themselves produced as they sought to understand and extend their own lives, and the lives of those around them.
Watch a video of Douglas talking about his book: