Fact vs Fiction

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Local journalists make their mark as authors

Journalists are concerned with fact, not fiction.

That is, unless they are writing a novel or short story. And in recent years, a considerable few local journalists have published works of fiction, including Russell Wangersky, Ramona Dearing, Glen Carter and Fred Armstrong (now retired).

In fact, CBC Radio Noon is going to focus today on Russell Wangersky's latest work, Burning Down the House, in the book club edition of its Crosstalk program, which starts at 1:30 pm. Wangersky's first book, a collection of short stories titled The Hour of Bad Decisions, received several awards and award nominations and was hailed by critics.

In Burning Down the House Wangersky writes autobiographically about some of the tragedies he witnessed as a volunteer fire fighter, and the resulting post-traumatic stress that haunts him to this day.

I worked with Wangersky at The Sunday Express, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and recall vividly some of the harrowing stories he told us. There was, for example, the elderly lady who lost control of her car and collided with something unforgiving. She sat upright in the front seat, hands gripping the wheel, looking as if she was asleep, except she was lifeless and the car's engine was sitting in her lap.

At the time, I had no idea that this and other incidents had left such a scar on my colleague. The term post-traumatic stress disorder' had not been coined back then.

"Those (experiences) stick with me still, in nightmares," Wangersky said, in an interview. "It's no trouble to see all that again. I thought it was unique to me; that I had an overactive imagination or something that let me remember stuff in great detail. I thought it was a problem with me."

Wangersky said he has at least two other books of true experiences bottled up inside, but doubts that he will ever write them.

"I'd love to tell these stories but I found it to be just gutting, writing it. With reviews of the fiction, you feel poked in the eye enough, but with non-fiction especially a memoir you feel like someone is judging the way you lived your life. And that can be pretty hard to take, because everyone in their life does the best job they can and makes the best decisions based on the information they had at the time. I can't make a happier ending. It only ends they way it does."

Currently the managing editor of The Telegram, Wangersky has worked in both print and television, and has refined his writing style primarily through his highly descriptive columns and editorials, for which he has won prestigious awards. I asked him if his career as a journalist has influenced his work as an author.

"Yes, it has, in a lot of ways," he said. "First, from the point of view of discipline. People ask me how I write so much (on books), after I've been working all day. The fact is, when you are used to deadlines, you just do it. I don't have a whole lot of time for messing around. I just go head and write.

"The other way it's important is stylistically. I've been developing a style of writing in journalism for 24 years. It has refined my eye and my ear and everything else, both for language and imagery."

Wangersky said writing fiction is quite liberating compared to journalism, which is all about factual accuracy.

"I work two ways in fiction," he said. "I either create a place, then create people to be in it, or I have a circumstance or people or a character that I want to develop and in fiction you can just let them develop; you can let them become whoever they are. Thematically they always act true. And something you find in journalism is that people sometimes don't act in line with their convictions, or the way they say they live their lives. The other thing about fiction is that you can just let your mind go."

One person who won't listen to today's Crosstalk is Wangersky himself; not even a recording of the show.

"After I do a radio piece, I don't listen to it. I was in television for five years and the way that I handled it was to not watch it actually on television. It was one thing to watch it on monitors at the station, but if I didn't watch it on my own television at home, it was easy for me to pretend that I was the only one who saw it. So I didn't feel as publicly exposed as I would otherwise. And I don't listen to interviews again on radio and television, which is sort of strange but it seems to help me it always sounds like somebody else saying your words."

Interestingly, Ramona Dearing, the talented host of today's Crosstalk program, is also the critically acclaimed author of So Beautiful, a book of short stories. In an email exchange, Dearing said journalism has also had an influence on her fiction writing.

"As a journalist, I keep coming back to the same question, one that I find completely fascinating: why do people do the things they do? And that's exactly what the innards of fiction are all about, as far as I'm concerned.

"In the radio business, we get to talk to people who've done extraordinary things, and we get to do that every single day. People who risk their own lives to save someone else. Who start fundraisers to get someone in their town a new kidney, or a new house to replace the one that burned down. Who suffer disgrace, and lose prominent positions. Who come up with new ideas that will change our lives. It's impossible not to wonder what makes those people tick, and about what follows from their actions. That's the thing about fiction a character does something, and then has to live with the consequences, just like in Ian McEwan's Atonement. So much for escaping into the breezy, pretty land of make-believe'.

"It's also been useful as a writer to get a whiff of how we hold society together. I've spent a little time inside St. John's city hall, the provincial legislature and the courts. My time in court continues to influence my writing, even though that was many years ago. Every possible problem and its origin is laid right out under your nose: the terrible things we can do to each other because of poverty, greed, bloodlust, addictions, jealousy, a lack of education, the fact that a person wasn't told often enough that he or she is loved."

Dearing said that, as a writer, she might have figured out these things without having to sit in a courtroom, but there were some unexpected lessons.

"What I couldn't have imagined was the great decency with which I saw the judges treat people on trial. Here you have these extremely educated, well-paid men and women who get their own parking spaces talking to people who might know the lock-up like the back of their hand, or who might have gone hungry at some point, or maybe can't read very well. What's remarkable is that the judges I saw in action generally showed deep awareness of all those things. That's gold as a writer thinking about the contrast between so-called high' and low', between two bunches of people that don't really have much in common except that they have no choice because they're thrown into the same scene together."

It can be liberating to move to fiction, after a day spent obsessing over facts, Dearing said, and the two forms do have some things in common.

"I think it's the same for both journalism and fiction-writing: you always know you don't know enough. You can always go deeper. So there's always that reality-check. And never discount the inventiveness required to make daily radio rubbing up against the clock day after day can make for mandatory creativeness. One of the many beauties of radio is you wipe the slate clean after every show and start all over. Presumably, a not-terrific show will be replaced the next day by a better one. A novel going south in its 3rd draft is not freedom! But of course, I know exactly what you're talking about. It's funny, I don't write fiction about governments falling or natural disasters or all those stories that we play high in a newscast. I don't set stories in the Congo, or outer space, and I don't write about sorcery or millionaires. What I'm interested in is the small but huge stuff how regular people get through regular lives.

"But it is liberating to move away from the flood of daily factoids, and to zoom in on a character's desires. To let them smell flowers and go on trips. To listen to them tell jokes. But really, I've never found writing very much fun. There's a lot of work involved, and therefore lots of resistance to overcome. Many journalists are procrastinators off the job. My theory is it's because they're always on deadlines on the job. At least, that's my excuse. Anyway, for me, the most freeing thing about writing isn't the actual content. It's this delicious thing that hits sometimes when I'm retooling a draf language takes me right inside the world of that story, and I'm an extremely happy captive."

Dearing says she is currently working on an "alleged novel" but it is too soon to talk about a release date.

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