In preparation for his workshop on Turning True Stories Into Fiction, we sat down with Michael Sala to ask him about what he does best. Michael’s first autobiographical novel The Last Thread won the UTS/Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and also the Commonwealth Book Prize (Pacific Region) in 2013. His latest novel is The Restorer, and he is currently working on a third novel.
True stories can make for great fiction or non-fiction — how do you decide which one’s right for the story?
This depends on your skill set and what you are interested in as a writer. My first book was straight memoir. It was psychologically very confronting, but also felt like the equivalent of getting my writing brain in order. I was entirely working with material I already had in my head. My second novel used some real events in an invented story. This was liberating but required me to make a lot of things out of nothing.
How do you strike a balance between making things up and sticking to the facts?
Whether you are writing a memoir or fiction grounded in real events, the reader needs to trust that you are dealing with the nonfiction elements as honestly as you can. Even a non-fiction story is massively affected by what you choose and don’t choose to relate, the order you relate it in, and how you emphasise the details. A story also has to be readable, and this may mean combining characters or scenes so that you can really capture the spirit of an experience. If the reader sees you capturing the spirit of things, they will forgive the minor errors or fabrication because they understand this is inherent to both memory and story telling.
Are there unique ethical concerns when you’re turning something that really happened into fiction?
Absolutely. How much time do we have here?