Novelist Nails Down The Facts

Sigrid Estrada PhotoNone of the scenes in Alice Mattison’s new novel takes place in Clark’s Dairy. Because when Mattison makes up stories, she tells the truth.

Mattison likes to situate scenes in her novels and short stories in real New Haven spots like the former Clark’s Dairy. Because she lives here (in Goatville). That’s part of what makes it extra fun for us in New Haven to read her books or short stories: We recognize our city, and often ourselves, in the pages.

But the New Haven action in Mattison’s new novel, Conscience — her seventh — occurs around 2013. The popular Whitney Avenue sandwich and ice cream spot served its last customers on May 31, 2010.

Mattison makes a practice of staying true to the factual details. She talked about that practice during an interview on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program.

The interview took place a day after Pegasus Books released Conscience, a gripping story about a New Haven couple coming to terms with their connections to Vietnam-era protest violence, prompted by the re-release of a novel an old acquaintance writes about the events in question. (Click here to read what the Washington Post had to say this week about the novel. The Washington Post is right.)

Mattison was critical of the novelist she invented in the book.

Let’s just say that the novelist in this novel-within-a-novel takes too many liberties with the “facts” in the fictional story she openly bases on “real” events that occurred in the characters’ lives.

At least several of the characters in the novel think so. So does Mattison.

In addition to presenting challenging questions about friendship and political violence, Conscience wrestles with the question of how “true” fiction should be, once the reader has agreed to suspend disbelief about basic elements of the story.

“It’s a novel if you didn’t live through certain events. If you did, it’s not quite a novel,” one character in Conscience suggests.

“You mean it should be accurate about verifiable events?” responds another.

The novel-within-the-novel inaccurately places the Tet Offensive in 1970, not 1968, for instance. That doesn’t bother one of the characters discussing it in Conscience. “Why does it matter whether the facts are true?” the character says. “I don’t expect it to be true. In fiction you can have a talking elephant, or what happened if the South won the Civil War. Isn’t that the idea?”

In the WNHH interview, Mattison argued that that isn’t the idea. Once you’ve established that the characters in a book aren’t real, once you’ve established the specific story being told didn’t actually happen, you still have to convince the reader that what she’s reading could take place. The reader needs to hear what the character is saying and believe the character would say it, for instance.

“I think it matters what year you put in for the Tet Offensive,” or the existence of Clark’s Dairy, Mattison said. “I do try to be as accurate as I can about the things that happen.”

Mattison doesn’t want her reader to believe that a fictional character really exists, she said. Rather, within the story, “I want them to feel as if he’s a real person when he’s talking.”

When she wrote a scene about a protest in Conscience that takes place on Election Day 1968, Mattison said, she researched the “facts.” She looked up the name of an art exhibit staged back then at the Pierpont Morgan Library (now called the Morgan Library and Museum) to make sure she had it right. She confirmed the location and other facts about a rally that happened that day before creating fictional actions at the event involving her fictional characters.

She regularly looks up the weather report in old editions of The New York Times to get conditions right for dates she’s writing about, she said.

“Fiction establishes its own truth…. Each thing is true within each book,” argues another character in Conscience.

That led Mattison and this interviewer to disagree about how far a novelist should go in inventing dialogue or “facts” about a fictional character clearly based on a true character. Is it enough for the author to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the book stating that not all the characters and events are real?

To hear that debate, and the full interview with author Alice Mattison (who reads an extended excerpt from Conscience and speaks about the need for more novels about the work of working women), click on the Facebook Live video below. Click here to order the book. Or better yet, Mattison said, please go to an independent bookstore to buy it.

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