Apologies if this post seems somewhat scattered. I’m using it to organize my thoughts.
Fiction is based, however marginally, on real life. Even in fantasy worlds, the characters must convince us that these people could exist, because we can recognize in them the qualities and traits of people in the world we know and experience. Sometimes, the fiction is too close to real life, as when the story includes a poorly disguised individual. More than one novelist has been accused of libel because the person’s identity was obvious. Normally, fiction writers are intelligent enough and experienced enough to riff off people they know or have observed, without subjecting anyone to the public eye.
Then there’s biography, which can be an attempt to be as accurate as possible, or an imaginative reworking of a person’s life, as in historical fiction. As I move toward concentration on important social issues, I’m running into the need to make decisions about how to frame those issues and about the use of real people.
What I discovered is that if you frame important issues as fantasy, most of the readers will be those who are attracted to fantasy. I’ve posted a good deal of the hand slaves books on my Live Journal blog, and that turned out to be an accidental experiment in perception and expectations. Very few readers commented on anything but their sympathy for the slave characters, and how they hoped for a happy ending. Comments on slavery or the abuses of power that the stories presented? Honestly, I don’t remember any at all.
Part of the problem was that “slavefic” carries a set of expectations that revolve around physical and sexual abuse of slaves as a major part of the plot. When I started posting the next-to-final draft of A Perfect Slave, I included, as part of the usual header, a warning that the story has no sex and is not a male/male story. The result has been very few comments, and most of those from a few steady readers, unusual for the hand slaves universe. The lesson is not to write about important issues within a genre that has what amount to guidelines based on readers’ expectations.
So how do I frame criminal justice, free speech, and other social issues? Some stories, like A Well-Educated Boy will lend themselves to science fiction. It’s fairly easy to write a story that extrapolates from and extends the current trend of privatizing schools, and limiting and controlling what students are allowed to learn and think. The more serious problem is when it’s necessary to use real-world people for inspiration.
I’ve been sporadically making notes about the criminal justice system, but without a specific goal in mind. There are many issues that concern me, including mass incarceration, solitary confinement, and the death penalty. But which to focus on, and how to approach it? Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and amassing a huge amount of information. But how to make the best use of it?
The answer came accidentally, as most answers do. I started reading the blog I’d found recently, of a death row prisoner. Then I didn’t get back to it for a while, and when I did, I found that the man was only two weeks away from being executed. There was something about his plight, and his writing, that drew me, so I bought and read his memoir, which had originally been published in a 2003 paperback and was now on Smashwords and Amazon. It was an amazing reading experience. Even if it had been nothing more than the words of a man whose life had gone wrong almost from the beginning, and who was about to die, it would have been a fascinating read. But it was much more than that. I realized that this man’s life, including his life on death row, was a model for everything that’s wrong with our society’s approach to crime, both its prevention and its punishment.
His life would be the central feature of an examination of the criminal justice system. But should it be a novel or nonfiction? It would be easy enough to change the names and details and come up with an exciting, truth-based novel. Much easier than poring through much more information than a novel would require, easier than trying to get all the details right. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a novel would be one more way of “disappearing” the subject, of trivializing his real life and the injustice of his death sentence.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to do justice to the man or the subject, but I intend to try. His name was William Van Poyck, and he was executed for felony murder by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013.