Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Where Fiction and Reality Blur

© Paul Harris 2010 all rights reserved

One man's search for the truth in war-torn Sierra Leone, where the rules of civilized society don't apply...

Journalist Danny Kellerman receives an urgent letter from an ex-lover in Sierra Leone, where he once was a war correspondent. But it's already too late; she's been murdered in a roadside robbery. Danny returns to Freetown, where his investigation uncovers secrets that shed a shocking light on the woman he though he knew-and reveals a hidden truth that could destroy those in power. Trapped in the heart of a dangerous nation where he can trust no one, Danny is soon forced to choose between his integrity and the devastating consequences of speaking the truth.

WHEN I had finished an early draft of THE SECRET KEEPER, my novel about a journalist investigating the death of a former lover in the West African country of Sierra Leone, an old friend made a surprising observation.

In the novel, she said, there is almost no physical description of my journalist protagonist, Danny Kellerman. His hair colour, eye colour and height are all pretty much left up to the reader’s imagination. The reason, she thought, was obvious. The novel had been inspired by my own experiences as a reporter covering the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone. Danny was a journalist. So was I. Danny had found Sierra Leone both traumatising and exhilarating and been disturbed by his inability sometimes to tell the two emotions apart. So had I. Danny, essentially, was me. The book was seen through his eyes, just as my own experiences had been. No wonder I had never written down what I thought he looked like. No one thinks of themselves in that way, unless they are looking in a mirror.

It was actually an embarrassing revelation. I had known a lot of myself would seep into Danny. But not quite that much. It seemed overly self-indulgent to say the least. But it has also prompted me to think more closely about the implications of writing THE SECRET KEEPER and how much I had blended my own real life experiences into Danny’s fictional ones.

I had begun the project following the old maxim Write What You Know. It seemed like a good plan. Previous attempts at writing a novel had been far too ambitious, certainly for a first attempt. I had tried to write magical realism and the attempt ended up – to be honest – as a disaster. So I looked at my own experiences as a foreign correspondent who had spent four years traipsing around Africa. Setting a book in Sierra Leone was the obvious choice. I did not have to spend hours researching a topic I knew nothing about. I just had to tap my own memories. I began to blend my own real life experiences as a journalist with the writer’s needs to create a plot and characters.

Some were drawn straight my life. In THE SECRET KEEPER Danny has a local driver and helper (a “fixer” in journalists’ parlance). His name is Kam, a wily and witty Senegalese Muslim who forms the warm heart of much of the book. He is written purely from my real life where Kam had indeed been my fixer. At one point in the book Kam saves Danny from danger by accurately reading a crowd and spotting the warning signs of an impending riot. The real Kam saved my own skin in exactly the same way.

Other characters were based on just a kernel of truth that I let my imagination run away with. There is a deeply ambivalent character in the book called Ali, a Lebanese diamond trader and arms dealer. His is based on a single brief meeting with a man on a helicopter going into Freetown. I spotted him, aloof from all the chaos of war, sporting a pair of cool shades and looking like he was out for a stroll by the beach. From that brief moment I wondered who he might be, what he might do and let my mind come up with Ali. Someone whom it is impossible not to want to spend time with but whose immoral business dealings and carefree attitude to the suffering around him also arouse strong feelings of anger.

Others were a more even-handed blend of reality and imagination. Numerous real life journalists, mercenaries and aid workers were amalgamated into a cast of characters in Freetown that would be familiar to any NGO worker, United Nations official or foreign reporter. I mined my own experiences for plot points. I gave Danny a few close shaves that I had myself experienced. I made him cynical about some of his journalist colleagues’ motivations in the same way that I had become. I made him the haunt the bar of a seedy hotel each night with other journalists, mercenaries and the wild and weird people who flock to every war zone. Just as I had.

The trick worked. Unlike my previous writing, the novel and the plot flowed out of me. I often thought of the writing of the book as like watching a magician pull a seemingly never-ending stream of ribbons or handkerchiefs out of his nose. I did not know where it was all coming from but it never seemed to stop. I just had to mentally tug at the idea and it seemed to emerge fully formed. All I had to do was write it down.

But another strange thing has happened. The revelation about the lack of Danny’s physical description was not the only unexpected product of merging my real life experiences with those of my fictional characters. In looking back I have started to find it more difficult to tell the two apart. When I remember running across the road in the middle of a terrifying fire-fight, am I remembering it as the moment that happened to me, or the way that I later wrote it happening for Danny? When Danny gets on an aid chopper and flies to an isolated and dangerous diamond town behind rebel lines, am I thinking of my novel’s version of those events or my real life memories of doing exactly that? Is the sexist and violent Fijian mercenary I put in the book, different at all to the one I myself met?

Like every book, there is a disclaimer at the start of THE SECRET KEEPER. It legally assures people that the events portrayed are fictional and no resemblance to anyone living or dead is intended. But for me that cannot be entirely true, because an important part of my real life is in there. The world of THE SECRET KEEPER has become neither truth nor fiction, but a blend of the two and even I, who lived through the reality and then imagined the book, can’t always quite tell them apart.


Paul Harris is giving away a signed copy of his book, The Secret Keeper, to one lucky tour visitor. Go to his book tour page, http://paul-harris.omnimystery.com/, enter your name, e-mail address, and this PIN, 4649, for your chance to win. Entries from Murder By 4 will be accepted until 12:00 Noon (PT) tomorrow. No purchase is required to enter or to win. The winner (first name only) will be announced on his book tour page next week.

Stop by Novel Works on March 4, to read Marta Stephens's interview with Paul Harris. Comment on Novel Works for another chance to win a copy of THE SECRET KEEPER.

About the Author:

Paul Harris is currently the US Correspondent of the British weekly newspaper The Observer, the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper. He has held the post since 2003. Prior to that he reported from Africa for the Daily Telegraph, the Associated Press and Reuters. He has covered conflicts and trouble spots all around the world, including Iraq, Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Pakistan. In 2003 he was embedded with British forces during the invasion of Iraq.

The Secret Keeper was inspired by his reporting on events in 2000 in Sierra Leone as that country’s long civil war came to an end. Paul now lives in New York and is happy to have swapped the dangers of the front line for the less obvious perils of writing about American politics and culture.
 To learn more about the author and the book, visit his website at www.TheSecretKeeper.us.


Marta Stephens said...

Paul, what an interesting observation/revelation. I imagine that because of your experiences in Sierra Leone, this novel must mean a great deal to you.

Fascinating account and I'm still loving the book. Thanks so much for sharing your unique experience with us in MB4!

Kim Smith said...

"Unlike my previous writing, the novel and the plot flowed out of me. I often thought of the writing of the book as like watching a magician pull a seemingly never-ending stream of ribbons or handkerchiefs out of his nose"
Don't you LOVE it when that happens???? I do!
It is like a faucet that has old washers or something. You just can't NOT write! Great post!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Paul, I related so strongly to your experience where your protag is based on your own experiences. I find my strongest works are those where I'm basing the setting and some of the characters off places and folks in my life. And yes, there are times when I rewrite a scene to make it more palatable for the book, and I can't remember if it really happened this way or if I created some nuance out of the blue. Very strange, and kind of spooky. ;o) Your book sounds outstanding - I'm going to buy it now.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Paul, we put a lot of time and effort into our works. It's not surprising that our spirit's in there too. Nice article. Thank you for giving me thought.

itsamystery said...

Incredible post! I love, "The world of THE SECRET KEEPER has become neither truth nor fiction, but a blend of the two and even I, who lived through the reality and then imagined the book, can’t always quite tell them apart." You've moved The Secret Keeper up to the top of my list of must reads!

Paul Harris said...

Thanks so much for all the kind comments. It is great to get such interesting input about our craft. Food for thought indeed...


misterreereeder said...

I think writing from your own experience just enhances the story. It is certainly something you know about - your own experiences.