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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Writing in Practice - Vol. 2 > “Life” choices: deciding to use fiction in biographical writing
“Life” choices: deciding to use fiction in biographical writing
Author: James Vicars
James Vicars considers what makes fictional biography a compelling choice in the practice of life writing.


There now seem many choices of form available to writers of the lives of others in the 21st century, ranging from traditional nonfiction to fictional biography. The increasing presence of the latter has revealed (and perhaps boosted) an openness to the representation of actual lives in fiction, but what makes it a compelling choice in writing practice?

This paper seeks to consider this question by way of two case studies: one of a highly visible and controversial work about a major figure on the world stage and the second a work in progress about Australia’s almost-forgotten first woman aviator. The first briefly offers a view of the risks and rewards of using fictional elements; the second is a more detailed look at the process of choosing fiction as a writing modality in preference to other genres. Discussing the adoption of the form of fictional biography for its exploratory power in writing the life in question may also offer a reflective process useful for other biographical projects.


Keywords: fictional biography, biographical novel, Schabert, biographical fiction, nonfiction biography, Edmund Morris, Millicent Bryant, creative nonfiction, historiographic metafiction, life writing


In biography the opposite of fact is not always fiction and the opposite of historical truth is not necessarily a lie.

— William Siebenschuh


Notions of biography have turned full circle at least once since the term, according to the OED (Murray et al 1933), was first used by the poet John Dryden in the sixteenth century. These “turnings” have ranged from highly personal, nuanced accounts, such as Boswell’s portrayal of Dr Johnson, through periods of rigid adherence to historical “fact” and back to where Edmund Morris’s controversial Dutch: A memoir of Ronald Reagan (1999) included fictional characters, novelistic sections and parts set out as screenplay. However, the approbation that descended on this particular work – which perhaps speaks less of ineffective portrayal than of a mismatch of expectations exacerbated by the lack of upfront framing by the author – highlights the risks and the opportunities that contemporary biographical projects offer. It also introduces questions about how to make choices in the writing of lives, given that every subject is unique and that readers are interested as much in the inner movements that reveal character as with outer events. Such a discussion of choices, of genre and writing mode in particular, is what I wish to pursue here and, while considering the example of Dutch, I also offer my own recent project as a relevant case study of how imaginative writing and fiction can be appropriate choices for the writing of a life.


Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

Winning a Pulitzer Prize for the biography of America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, no doubt gave Edmund Morris the confidence in his own research and writing powers to take on the life of the 40th President, Ronald Reagan. Clearly, it also gave others confidence, being the first biography authorized by a sitting president. However, if the author himself was braced for the reception to Dutch in September 1999, his backers – including the Reagans and Random House, which provided a US$3 million advance – must have, at least privately, doubted their choice of fourteen years before. Professional historians had began to lambaste the book even before its release (Masur 1999), but the critics’ words were harsher: [Morris] “lost his bearing and his self-confidence, his conviction … [and] … chose the easy path of self-indulgence”, wrote Elizabeth Manus in The New York Observer (1999: n.p.), while politics professor Mickey Craig accused Morris of trying “to drown Ronald Reagan in his impressionistic sea of post-modern interpretations”, flatly telling his own readers “you should not buy this book” (Craig 1999: n.p.). While many of these critics did acknowledge Morris’ insights and the quality of the writing, if grudgingly, a few were much more sympathetic and perceptive about his approach. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the New York Times that he could think of “few conventional political biographies that bring their subjects' pasts so richly alive” and “had he [Morris] used a more conventional form, one finds it hard to imagine how he could have so effectively evolved his narrative voice” (Lehmann-Haupt 1999: n.p.).

The most noticeable and, for some readers, confusing, feature of the book is that Morris fictionalizes his own persona as narrator, noting his own birth to be merely a year and a half after Reagan’s in order to be able to cross paths with his subject and to characterize him in his school and younger days. This enabled Morris, for example, to review, as if he were there, Reagan’s first known stage role at Eureka College, Illinois – something that an author who was nearly thirty years younger in actuality clearly could not otherwise have witnessed. Morris writes that he “had been mystified and depressed by his [Reagan’s] opaque personality. I could not understand how so magical a public performer, and so acute a political intelligence, could be so banal, even boring, in private” (Morris 2007: n.p.). Hence his solution, to avoid the likelihood of a book that was “banal” and “boring” – and, it is probably relevant to say, unsatisfying to a writer of biography who was genuinely attempting to understand his subject.

If the result was, to some, a “maddeningly confusing tome” (Harbrecht 1999), there are more useful points for prospective writers of lives to take away. First, the reception of the book will be its own salutary warning about the need to avoid playing too fast and loose with readers’ expectations. Writing for the American Historical Association, Kate Masur pointed to a comment by Yale historian John Demos that “one of the cardinal rules of unconventional history writing is to ‘be as clear as possible to your reader about what you're doing.’ Morris and his publisher, Random House, clearly flouted this rule” (Masur 1999: n.p.). Taking an overview of the criticisms of Dutch, this is perhaps the primary complaint, and leads to the related point that Morris’ fictionalizations were possibly less of an issue: they could be appreciated for the insights they provided. “A main effect is to make the book more confiding, more conversational – certainly, more swiftly moving and enthralling”, according to Michael Pakenham of The Baltimore Sun (1999: 1).

Dutch is therefore something of a marker for biographical works that mix fictional and nonfictional elements. On one hand, this is because of its level of ambition and confidence in using and mixing in fictional elements while drawing adroitly from a rich cache of source material to provide authoritative and compelling detail. Morris commits wholly to his technique to gain the benefits, which permits narrative uninterrupted by speculative caveats like “it might be supposed … ” etc. Dutch showcases the power of fiction and nonfiction biography in the same book and one might be tempted to say that, were it not for failing to introduce explicitly what he aimed to do, there might have been less controversy and, possibly, a more respectable model for the use of fiction in biographical works. Yet the book is also a marker because it dares to trust to fiction one of the most recognizable public figures of its era and to do so under the full glare of public expectations. Brave it might have been – even arrogant or foolhardy, given the lack of an author’s note to prepare the reader – but, even under this glare, Morris is prepared to position the eye of a fictional narrator to provide commentary and express insights that would be unavailable to nonfiction biography. A measure of the success of this approach might be that, as Lehmann-Haupt put it, the book “in no way distorts the record of Reagan's life, only the viewpoint from which it is told” (1999).


The Fortunes of Millicent Bryant, Aviator

While Dutch and the commentary around it is a helpful showcase of technique and of the choices that were involved in Morris’ writing practice, the following case study comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. It is in the process of final drafting rather than being a published work, and is about a forgotten figure in Australian history rather than one on the world stage. Unlike Dutch, it is a “live” project and a discussion of its development and the choice of form may illuminate practical choices faced by other writers of lives in the second decade of the 21st century, particularly if they are contemplating less usual approaches to a subject.

The Greycliffe maritime disaster in Sydney Harbour in 1927 inspired the literary imaginations of Australian writers Eleanor Dark (Waterway, 1938) and Sumner Locke Elliott (Careful he might hear you, 1963), who used it as a setting for their respective fictions. However, one of its actual victims was Australia’s first woman pilot, Millicent Bryant. Hundreds crowded her funeral and wreaths were dropped from the air in a dramatic tribute, but with her abrupt departure from the public eye her achievements fell into obscurity and her larger life remained virtually unknown. This project arose when access to a hitherto unexamined collection of Bryant family letters revealed a woman that seemed to be literally and figuratively riding the winds of change. The letters, mostly written by Millicent herself, told of a wife and mother who came to live apart from her husband, a political activist, entrepreneur, golfer and a student of Japanese as well as a passionate early motorist and even would-be writer. Her epoch encompassed the growth of the colony of New South Wales into the ambitious, federated Australia of the 20th century, a world that appeared ready to consider the possibility of new roles for women.

The letters collection (primarily letters but also notes, ephemera and newspaper reports from the flying years) offers the only detail of Millicent’s broader life. Though the letters themselves were mostly written in her last two years, they provide information and clues about earlier events and relationships that only a few basic official records can corroborate. The historical evidence is thus fragmented and heavily weighted towards the end of Millicent’s life; other than her birth, and a little useful but general family history, there is no other information extant about her first thirty years and only a little more about her next fifteen. From my perspective as a writer, her early life was an added distance from my own experience compared to her later life in the early 20th century – a problem Morris confronted and approached by fictionalizing himself as narrator. I was confronted with the question of where the fuller, real life of Millicent might be “found”: I wanted to do it justice as a life rather than by working with the unbalanced series of historical moments that were almost all the sources gave me access to. How was the reader to relate to her as a person? What would Millicent’s life really have been like in the spaces before as well as between her letters? These questions made clearer the realization that, even by triangulating the information available, the number and size of the gaps mitigated against developing a broad picture of her life, let alone an intimate one that could explore the personality that had driven her to become a pilot. Such an account would be fundamentally shaped by the lacunae – who Millicent was not, rather than who she might have been – so I began to consider fiction as a mode of writing suited to the kind of portrayal I seeking.


The use of fiction as an exploratory tool

The approach of Morris and a range of others from A. J. A. Symons to Marguerite Yourcenar shows that writing fiction does not require abandoning historical perspectives or evidence but employs a different method of working with them. Hayden White, expanding on Michel de Certeau’s notion that fiction is the repressed “other” of historical discourse, argues that “historical discourse wages everything on the true, while fictional discourse is interested in the real – which it approaches by way of an effort to fill out the domain of the possible or imaginable” (White 2005: 147).[1] While his summary of historical discourse may be contested, White’s perception of the alternative in terms of its interest in filling out the possible or imaginable (rather than staying within the limits of the available records) was consonant with the needs of my particular project. Indeed, it was with something of this sensibility that I began writing Millicent’s life as a story that was not defined by large gaps in the historical record and the absence of direct personal interaction with Millicent (who was dead more than eighty years previous). In this respect, my practice seemed to reflect the approach to the “unassailable lacuna” or absent “other” that de Certeau, writing about history and Foucauldian archaeology, found in the work of Martin Duberman and that he observed “ceaselessly moves and misleads him … or indeed writes” (de Certeau 2000: 34). Here, the lacuna prompts or becomes a driving force for the writing; de Certeau articulates it as “the relation of the logos to the archè, a 'principle' or 'beginning' which is its other … [and] on which it is based, which makes it possible” (2000: 35). Such a lacuna had prompted me to begin writing in fiction and to conceive the archè or originary source in terms suggested by Paul Ricoeur, what I have called “an other like self” with whom I could relate.[2] From this, a form or a personality that I could call “Millicent” took shape in the writing.

These perspectives were helpful in understanding my practice and steering my engagement with my subject: that is, with both the historical Millicent, about whom it can be accepted that certain statements can be made from an objective or rational standpoint, and also with a subjective engagement by which I gathered a different sense of who Millicent might have been, and that was of a kind that did not set us apart on the basis of our different placements in historical time, our different genders, or family relationships. Such axes may underlie most purposeful writing, but the choice to write about a real person in fiction perhaps calls them more plainly into view. This engagement included holding and developing an awareness of Millicent as “an other like self”, an experience and practice of close connectiveness formed by part respectful awareness, part emotive and empathetic conversation, part unconscious presence and more, something that unfolded over time and still continues. It provided the impetus for the imaginative movement of Millicent’s story as well as a focus that could ensure this movement would not be a random or fanciful one.

The story that developed was still just as connected to the source material as a nonfiction biography but could move beyond it. For example, I employed a technique of accretion, creating further incidents and dialogue around sparsely recorded actual events, especially in Millicent’s child and young adulthood. This allowed me to explore the impact of the accidental deaths of several of her siblings for instance, lives as well as deaths that are barely recorded. I was also able to explore the growth of the trusting relationship Millicent evidently had with her father, Edmund Harvey, and imagine how, as the letters in her last two years reveal, she was motivated to learn from his business acumen to become a businesswoman herself. Where there was a recorded event or incident I sought to draw its particular story both from the evidence and to view it through the lens of my engagement with Millicent to plausibly explore what the records only hinted at. In one case, working from a newspaper report of a birthday party held for her future husband’s younger brother in 1898, I developed a picture of how they met and how that meeting set the foundations for future events, including their unspoken-of parting twenty-five years later. In imagining the nature of that meeting, I drew on the indications of her later personality to characterize and explain the earlier one – a kind of reverse engineering. Creation of dialogue built more fully drawn relationships that helped to explain and characterize how Millicent felt about her sons and behaved with them. I evoked sensory experiences of horse riding as well as flying. While other narrative forms also work on some of these levels, I proceeded much further by employing an omniscient-intimate narrative viewpoint to explore the breadth of Millicent’s experience: I wrote about her birth as well as her death, about her own child-bearing, her relationships and her thoughts.

While this use of fiction sought to recover a "possible" Millicent, exploring personality through incidents and conversation and building verisimilitude, I also created constraints around this method in the interests of accuracy and authenticity. These aimed never to conflict with the historical record, to reflect regularly on what I created and to diarize what I had invented in terms of dialogue, incident and motivation. I reviewed this list periodically and looked for its own gaps, as much to motivate self-awareness in the writing process as to check on imaginative fancy and the interpretation of evidence. Another decision was also to avoid first person narration, other than if I quoted directly from her letters or in a very few stream of consciousness fragments. This was partly because I could not be sure of creating Millicent’s voice in an authentic way; although the letters near the end of her life provide a sense of this voice, I could not be certain enough of the way she might have spoken in different periods of her life as well as the language she would have used. There may also have been female sensibilities of that period expressed in speech that I did not know enough about to seek access to, either as "an other" or as a man.

While these moments perhaps reflect limits to my connective intimacy as "other" to Millicent and to the depth of my research capacity, part of this process was also motivated by another aim: to exclude "me" from the narrative. This was enabled by the prerogative of fiction to simply unfold; in continuing, the reader proceeds by the interior logic of the imaginative composition rather than by an exterior logic that situates and explains. While the reader is obviously free to infer authorial construction and presence, there is no framing in the story itself that asserts this. Thus I was able to avoid sharing the limelight – to get out of the way. As Millicent’s life lacked substance from a historical perspective, it would continue to be marginalized by my own presence if I appeared as a character, narrator or an authorial voice. Fiction need not flaunt its seams: while invented conversations and incidents were supported by all the dimensions of what I knew about Millicent, I considered that its construction would distract less from the woman whose life I wanted to bring to public awareness and whose personality I wanted to invoke. She is thus created, produced by careful, deliberate and subjective invention within a narrative that is intended to stand on its own without the writer being required to appear – as he would almost certainly do with alternative forms that might have been adopted for this project, such as memoir. It is also an approach that, framed as authorial self-denial in fictional biography, aims at dissolving distinctions between "self" and "other". The subject life becomes the sole point of focus for the reader.

Alvin Plantinga offers a useful summation of how fiction works that fits these discourses. He writes that the author of a work of fiction "does not assert the propositions that form his stock in trade … he exhibits them, calls them to our attention, invites us to consider and explore them" (1974: 161-162). In this way, fiction can be "true" as well as being invented or imagined. An example is Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, which, both as a novel and portrayal of a real person, illustrates how we can think of stories of a life where one might be invented or imagined and another might not be – yet both could be "true". Thus, instead of confining the writing of Millicent’s life to very limited and unevenly balanced factual evidence, the use of fiction could be understood as an exploration of propositions, informed by the evidence, about how her life might have been lived and experienced.

This exploratory potential has also been demonstrated in recent fiction that tests propositions relating to historical events, and an exemplar with strong resonances for how I was conceiving my portrayal of Millicent Bryant was The Secret River, a highly-regarded novel published by Australian writer Kate Grenville in 2005. In it, Grenville seeks to explore the ways in which early interactions between Aboriginal people and white settlers in colonial Australia might have taken place through the fictional account of a freed convict whose character is rooted in Grenville’s research on her own ancestor, Solomon Wiseman. However, in a noteworthy contribution to Quarterly Essay in 2006, historian Inga Clendinnen took issue with comments Grenville reportedly made about her approach and accused her of claiming to know, by her method, with "equal certainty" what is intimated within the records and what is beyond them – exposing, Clendinnen said, the gulf between "doing history" and "doing fiction" ("doing biography" and "doing fiction" might be analogous). She added that "we can’t post ourselves back in time", nor can we put ourselves in the place of even "those people we guess to approximate our own kind because that would condemn us to play Blind Man’s Bluff in a largely unintelligible world" (2006: 21).

Clendinnen’s view denies that the novelist or writer can imaginatively work with facts relating to the "actual" past, access to which, she maintains, is "slow, always problematic" (21). But that it is problematic leads to questions about whether the practices of history, even if indispensable, are our only tools for perceiving and understanding the past and people in it. After all, while Grenville’s novel, as with my own work on Millicent Bryant, is founded on much careful historical research, the ability to "post ourselves back in time" is precisely what the imagination is free to do.

Another eminent historian, Mark McKenna, also responded to Grenville’s work in terms of concerns about "a rival history" competing with "real" history in Australia. Yet he did not deny novelists their due, illustrating the potency of the "rival" approach by quoting Australian novelist, David Malouf, who puts it revealingly:

The only way of grasping our history – […] the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people’s entering into it in their imaginations, not by the world of facts, but by being there. And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction … (Mckenna 2006: 99)

McKenna follows up Malouf’s comments by identifying a crucial difference between history and fiction. History, he says, relies on distance "while fiction constantly tries to break that distance down, to create the illusion that the reader is there, and therefore knows what the past was like" (99).

Notwithstanding McKenna’s desire to separate these approaches, his comments, in addition to Malouf’s own, suggest the possibility of a complementarity in seeing and understanding the past. Literary theorist Dorrit Cohn also points to this when she cites Tolstoy’s War and Peace as demonstrating a conviction that fiction "enables a writer, first and foremost, to render historical happenings by way of the personalized and momentary experience of individual human beings" (1999: 151). These scholars do not minimize the importance of history but acknowledge the value of other ways of understanding events in the past – ways of understanding that can also be applied to people in the past.

These perspectives supported my view that fiction could provide an exploratory capacity my project needed in order to write the more vivid and complete story of Millicent Bryant that I sought without necessarily losing biographical veracity and fidelity. As an approach it also corresponded with the nascent genre of “fictional biography”, a term established by Ina Schabert in her seminal 1990 work on this subject and the one I have adopted (rather than the now common “biographical novel”).[3] Fictional biography seemed to match my aims, resources and inclinations, and although my work is also influenced by, for example, postmodern and hybrid fictional forms, it does not announce itself as such a form. The other major modes I considered using, and that also influenced my work, were creative or narrative nonfiction and, of course, nonfiction biography. However, what follows is intended to explain how fiction fitted the needs of my particular project in light of these alternatives more than it is to advocate for their particular strengths. In this respect, the discussion illustrates reasoning that others might consider in choosing fiction as a form for writing lives; it may assist in focalizing their own projects’ needs and goals.


Choosing genre: fiction vis-à-vis alternative forms

Fictional biography

Interest in telling lives in story or novel form is wide-ranging. There are the stylish, biographical fictions of literary figures such as Henry James (David Lodge with Author, Author in 2004 and Colm Tóibín with The Master in 2005), Sylvia Path (Emma Tennant’s Sylvia and Ted in 2001 and Kate Moses’ Wintering in 2003), Leo Tolstoy and Walter Benjamin (both by Jay Parini in The Last Station in 1990 and Benjamin’s Crossing in 1996 respectively), celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe (Norman Mailer with Marilyn: A Biography in 1973 and Joyce Carol Oates with Blonde in 1999), musicians such as Bob Dylan (Stephen Scobie’s semi-fictional And Forget My Name: A Speculative Biography of Bob Dylan of 1999) as well as politicians and statesmen (Gore Vidal’s Burr in 1973 and Lincoln in 1984 as well as Morris’ Dutch) to accomplished depictions of lesser known figures such as Andrew Motion’s Wainewright the Poisoner in 2000 and popular works such as Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, about early palaeontologist Mary Anning, in 2009. There are great historical figures, of course, such as Roman emperors Claudius (Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in 1934) and Hadrian (Marguerite Yourcenar’s remarkable Memoirs of Hadrian in the early 1950s) and Simón Bolívar (The General in his Labyrinth by García Márquez in 1989); there are also obscure ones, including wives of the “great” such as the poet Milton’s first wife, Marie, in Robert Graves’ 1943 Wife to Mr. Milton. While Ernestine Hill staked an early Australian interest in the genre with My love must wait, about cartographer Matthew Flinders in 1946, more recent examples include Peter Robb’s M, a Biography of European Painter Caravaggio in 1998 (a winner of the Australian National Biography Award), “the Captain’s Wife” in Marele Day’s Mrs Cook (2002), Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant (2008) and Australian-born pianist Noël Mewton-Wood in Sonia Orchard’s The Virtuoso (2009). Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) has perhaps overshadowed Robert Drewe’s intense but slimmer portrait of Ned Kelly, Our Sunshine, published in 1991.

Perhaps because suitable critical and evaluative frameworks were assumed to be non-existent, true fictional biographies are often still equated with historical fiction and their efficacy as biography discounted. Yet, building on the work of writers and academics from Lytton Strachey to Ira Nadel, fictional biography, from a scholarly viewpoint, has been defined as a genre and as a form by the work of Ina Schabert, especially in her monograph In Quest of the Other Person: Fiction as Biography (1990). Recent work, such as that of Susanna Scarparo (2005), is beginning to add to this underdeveloped field. In fictional biography, Thomas Petsinis points out that the writer “redefines his/her subject; often depicting character in ways that provide insights not seen by the [nonfiction] biographer” (1995: 8). This is a key feature of a form that, as Schabert defines it in her introductory remarks, “is engaged in the comprehension of a real historical individual by means of the sophisticated instruments of knowing and articulating knowledge that contemporary fiction offers” (1990: 4). Her approach does not exclude such techniques as characterization, setting and point of view from their appropriate use in other genres but they are central to writing that approaches a subject person through fiction. With this in mind, it is essential for the writer of fictional biography who understands that what is “rainbow-like” (to employ Virginia Woolf’s distinction) about their subject cannot be fully observed or deduced in the same way as that which is “granite-like” but comes from knowing or relating to the person subjectively. Fictional biography, Schabert asserts, trusts in this possibility:

[t]he genre acknowledges imagination – a disciplined and well-informed imagination – as the medium of interpersonal knowing. Thus is established, on a new level, the indispensable conviction that communication is possible: a community of comprehension between author and reader with reference to the person who is the subject of the fictional biography supplies the model for the reader’s act of understanding the author (Schabert 1990: 47).

However, fictional biographies also remain connected to the subject person as they are conventionally known and in the particularity of their circumstances. These are not to be changed to better fit fictional purposes: “narrative conventions are rejected as generalizations that work against the purpose of giving expression to real, unique personhood”, Schabert explains (1990: 32). Instead, the form of the narrative seeks to remain true to the idiosyncratic character of the subject person’s uniqueness and individual circumstances. The work is otherwise in the hands of the writer, and the portrayal may ask to be taken either on faith or through the acknowledgement of sources in some form: Andrew Motion takes the step of bringing the two side by side in Wainewright the Poisoner (2000). In such a way the reader can be reassured that the “knowing” of the subject person has not been subordinated either to creative temptations or to the thematic aims for which the historical novel perhaps offers greater scope. This is one of the most subtle and potentially problematic aspects of distinguishing fictional biography, as it is outlined here, from “pure” fiction: writers of fictional biography must walk a fine line.

In my own development of Millicent Bryant’s life as fictional biography, the particularity of the factual circumstances and available evidence came prior to, and underlay, the portrait of her that I developed imaginatively using the methods described above. The form of fictional biography allows an accretion of imagined facts to those accepted originally to exist, but does not change the latter; within these parameters, it permitted my development of Millicent’s story to range from circumstances only hinted at in the letters, such as the breakup of her marriage, to simpler but necessary connective transitions between events described in detail in the primary sources. In this regard, Schabert emphasizes William Styron’s view that the imagination of the author writing a fictional biography is a “responsible imagination”, an imagination which “as a rule respects the known facts, yet is free to interpret them, enlarge upon them and supplement them according to the certainties of the empathic act” (Schabert 1990: 147). Hilary Mantel’s biographical novels could be said to perform such an enlargement richly.

While this provided useful parameters and a sense of direction for my imagination and writing of Millicent’s life, some writers of fictional biography might wish to go much further; fiction offers the further advantage that it is perhaps the only means of recovering, through creative means, “lost” stories, subjects and marginalized histories. Women’s lives have frequently fallen into that category and, commonly being unrecorded, Susanna Scarparo says that “their stories – if they are to be told – have to be invented. The stories of the invisible … can only exist through fiction” (2005: 90). In Millicent Bryant’s case, she might have been more visible than many for a short time but she was invisible for much of her life.


Nonfiction biography

The qualifier “nonfiction” is consciously added here not only to distinguish this form but because of the tendency to generalize biography as nonfiction biography. This is due to its long connection with historical writing, which, during the nineteenth century, became increasingly concerned with claims on the basis of factual evidence and in adopting a more empirical approach. Although Barbara Caine’s recent study, Biography and History, points out that historians in the twenty-first century now appreciate biographical writing for its potential to contribute to ethnographic projects and in producing micro-histories (2010: 20-26), this still rests, more or less, on a view of biography in the fold of history and mainstream historiography. However, “facts” do not of course speak for themselves: they are arranged in a process of construction by which conclusions can be argued to arise from them. In highlighting such processes, deconstruction shows how binary oppositions – such as “fact” and “fiction” when they are placed in these positions – tend to fall apart under scrutiny. This is not to displace the value of nonfiction biography: however, it makes it more difficult to argue that all biography should align itself with nonfiction or with an empirical approach, or that these forms alone can provide a view of past lives.

The necessity for this kind of qualification becomes clear when considering Janet Malcolm’s lucid investigation and navigation of the interests competing for the legacies of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995). Malcolm makes it clear that biography is always negotiated to a greater or lesser degree: it is, as a whole, created by the writer and must be if it is to meet the diversity of circumstances and subjects. This highlights the broader reality of contemporary biographies as literary projects. As a further example from my own work, the project’s main sources were mostly confined to the last two years of Millicent’s life; this did not mean I wished simply to speculate about what came before or dwell on the few pieces of evidence minutely. Instead, it became clear that an approach other than nonfiction biography was needed to do her life, as a whole, justice.


Creative/narrative nonfiction

With its recent roots in the “new journalism” of the 1960s, this form has also been called dramatic nonfiction, literary journalism and literary nonfiction, among other things. It tells a story using facts but also utilizing many of the techniques of fiction such as characterization, scene setting, compression of information and personal narrative for its “compelling qualities and emotional vibrancy”, according to Theodore Cheney (2001: 1-2). Lee Gutkind, credited with coining the term “creative nonfiction”, claims that this is what biographies are often considered to be (1997: 6). While this is a provocative statement, it can be argued that there are ways in which biographical writing, in seeking the truth of an actual person, encompasses creative nonfiction. Smilovitis, for one, argues that the narrative distinctions between fiction and creative nonfiction “are, at best, marginal”. What informs both genres, essentially, she concludes, “is the root word, fiction: to shape, or fashion” (2007: 54); this concurs with Maureen Ramsden’s view that the difference between factual and fictional histories “is the use which is made of these facts by the writer” (2011: 348). Although John Hersey famously argued that there needed to be a “legend” on a writer’s “license” to say whether their work was “made up” or not (1986: 162-164), what can be observed to anchor the nonfictionality of, at least, longer form creative or narrative nonfiction about individuals is the sheer quantity of evidence they draw on and the alignment of the writers’ narratives with this evidence: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and News of a Kidnapping by García Márquez are relevant examples. By contrast, one of the more usual features of fictional biography is the lesser quantity of specific (rather than contextual) factual detail available to it.

Gutkind and others speak of creative or narrative nonfiction as a form that does not go beyond the facts, but the use of fictional techniques can make this distinction, in practice, problematic (Gutkind 2008: 49); Matthew Ricketson gives the example that, for a cohort of readers, Helen Garner’s investigation of allegations of sexual harassment at Melbourne University’s Ormond College in the 1990s, The First Stone, was perceived to be fiction (2010). Factuality itself is, in any case, no reliable distinction because “fiction too consists of sequences of facts” according to Genette et al (1990: 756), reinforcing the notion that the (at least easy) determination of a text’s status needs to be indicated outside of it in some way.

Alongside these considerations, in my own case, came the question of what kind of approach or format I would employ if adopting this form. The most obvious and promising involved bringing in my own persona as the researcher and describing my search for Millicent Bryant through the networks of family, historical research and the lives in the present that relate to her as memoir (this has been Morris’ approach). However, my concern was that this would have located a significant part of the narrative in the present rather than in Millicent’s own time. It would also have brought a cast of contemporary real-life characters, situations and personal reflexivity into the story and foregrounded them. Thus, while it could have made an engaging approach, it would also have risked overshadowing Millicent’s own story.


Historiographic metafiction

A postmodern sensibility features, as Lyotard famously put it, an “incredulity towards metanarratives” or grand narratives (1984: xxiv). Cavallaro adds that postmodern works communicate “a sense of open-endedness that negates the classic realist view of the text as a closed structure capable of conveying notions of harmony and order”; they also reject “coherent patterning and allow disparate elements to crowd the textual collage” (2001: 164-165). Although this might seem to pose risks similar to those of the memoir-style forms noted above, Linda Hutcheon positions postmodern thinking in an approach that appears more broadly situated to exploring the past than nonfiction biography. Hutcheon observes, in her well-regarded Poetics of Postmodernism, that what characterizes postmodernism in fiction is what she calls “historiographic metafiction”. This arises through the paradoxes that are set up “when modernist aesthetic autonomy and self-reflexivity come up against a counterforce in the form of a grounding in the historical, social, and political world” (Hutcheon 1988: ix).

Some of the life writing I found most interesting fell into this category, even if “category” is not a word that sticks to many postmodern works. Here, fiction may self-reflexively be aware of its every move, such as in Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot; language’s exploratory power can also be used to tell of lives which cannot be (or simply are not) told in an ordinary sense.[4] Some writers even insist that real lives cannot be portrayed in this discourse without emerging as “other than they are”, that is, subverted: Anna Kuhn argues that writers such as Bettina von Arnim and Christa Wolf have highlighted biography’s “failure” in this generic sense by their personal, speculative and open-ended accounts (1990: 15). Anna Banti also does this in her acclaimed fictional biography of the 15th century woman painter, Artemisia Gentileschi (2004). The writing of lives in a postmodern mode therefore makes it possible to inhabit self-contradictions, liminal spaces, “absences” and alternatives.

In the Australian context, Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy (1990) is a work that encompasses these with remarkable fluidity. As the author herself says, Poppy maintains itself as “fact and fiction, biography and novel”, thus providing a possible model (1990: 317). However, I was again concerned, as with creative nonfiction, about how the location of the narrative would shift from Millicent’s own time; as Hutcheon explains, “[p]ostmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (1988: 110). But this opens the way for alternative, even multiple stories: Brian Matthews’ postmodern biography of Louisa Lawson (1987) is a pioneering example. Perhaps bringing Matthews’ use of several narratorial voices up to date, Marilyn Metta recently articulated a method of life writing described in her title as “Reflexive, Poststructuralist Feminist Research Practice”, and in which her usage of biography as a term describes it as “co-authored storytelling by both author and subject, and the storymaking by the author”. In what she calls a “triple braid”, three life writing narratives are presented – her autobiography, her mother’s biography and her father’s imaginative biography – with imagination playing a vital role as “the creator of, created by and in co-creation with the self and hence, with memory itself” (Metta 2010: 17).

Although Metta seeks to provide a means of rolling historical and literary possibilities together with psychotherapeutic ones, the life writing itself is limited in scope and focused on stories and personal process; true to its poststructural outlook, it eschews a sense of telos in favour of possibilities for meaning that remain in smaller “pieces”. My own aim, conversely, was to form some kind of whole rather than variously linking micro-stories. Likewise, I sometimes found the multiple perspectives in Brian Matthews’ Louisa distracting when the narratorial voices and their arguments overtook the more condensed feeling of Louisa Lawson’s presence that readers such as myself might have hoped for.

By contrast, I wanted Millicent more simply to stand out of the shadows and in her own settings and, although my own presence is inseparable from the writing, a strongly self-reflexive approach did not seem the best way to accomplish this aim. Perhaps for similar reasons, as Caroline Lusin remarks in her recent survey of English fictional biography at the turn of the twenty-first century, a significant number of contemporary fictional biographies “do not engage in postmodernist play with different versions of the reconstructed world, but assert the 'truth of fiction’ and stage the condition of authorship as such” (Lusin 2010: 281). This resonated with my approach to Millicent’s life.


Concluding remarks: fiction as exploratory paradigm

The above sections have supplemented the earlier ones by discussing the choice of writing form for my own project and articulating my preference for the form of fictional biography. In doing so I have examined arguments for using fiction in writing the life of another, and touched on the issues and debates surrounding the exploration of the past through fiction. My own conclusion has been that this mode can be used in a biographical exploration of the life of a real person and has the key advantage of a capacity for imaginative exploration and, allied with this, close focus – Edmund Morris’ uses these to great effect in Dutch. The alternative forms considered for my project were either more constrained in the kind of exploration vis-à-vis the “facts” that they could undertake or brought with them a self-referential aspect that I felt would have shifted the focus away from the subject of my own project. Fictional biography seemed to meet the project’s need for a writing paradigm that could, in the absence of detailed or balanced evidence, explore both the inner and outer dimensions of Millicent Bryant’s life and perform her rescue from obscurity by enabling her to occupy and remain on centre stage.

Morris’ Dutch, with both its shortcomings and areas of brilliance, has brought to the mainstream the case for recognizing fiction’s exploratory capacity in writing lives. Indeed, the critics’ appreciative remarks, though they tended to be buried by other concerns (or, in some cases, vitriol), acknowledged broadly what fiction can bring to the writing of lives. The range and popularity of works that employ fiction to explore the lives of others also demonstrates this. There may consequently be a case for a broader understanding of “biography”, both as a base term to be qualified by individual works and as an area where genres are freer to intersect and overlap – a “borderland” that fiction can inhabit as well as nonfiction.[5] In this way, it may be possible to more closely understand and reason the use of fiction, not just in biography, but as a mode of biography.

[1] White adds the clarification that “[a] simply true account of the world based on what the documentary record permits one to talk about what happened in it at particular times, and places can provide knowledge of only a very small portion of what ‘reality’ consists of” [Hayden White (2005). Introduction: Historical Fiction, Fictional History, and Historical Reality. Rethinking History, 9 (2-3), 147]. Michel de Certeau writes that history can always seek, further and further back, what is “within the ‘real’ that legitimizes representation but is not identical to it”. Thus “historians can write only by combining within their practice the ‘other’ that moves and misleads them and the real that they can only represent through fiction”. [Michel de Certeau (2000), The Certeau Reader, Graham Ward (ed.). Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 35.]

[2] The notion of “an other like self” comes from the work of philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who argues that “self” from the Latin ipse (rather than idem) “involves a dialectic complementary to that of selfhood and sameness, namely the dialectic of self and the other than self”. This is otherness that is not (or not merely) the result of comparison, otherness “of a kind that can be constitutive of selfhood as such”. Ricoeur adds that “selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, instead that one passes into the other…”. [Paul Ricoeur (1992), Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey [Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press), 2-3). In this way Ricoeur sets down a grounding for the way one might relate to, or conceive of, an other human being on an imaginative and subjective level, a relationship with what I have called “an other like self”.

[3] The term “fictional biography” seems better to signify the writing of the biographical work in the mode of fiction, differing, say, from fiction applied to an extant biographical production but perhaps also to the biographical novel, in which the tendency, it seems to me, may be for the life of the person to be figured on a larger fictional canvas. Other alternatives that also signal a creative expansion beyond the life of the subject, such as “ficto-biography” or “bio-fiction”, seemed to have the whiff of jargon without being any more exact.

[4] Natalie Kon-yu notes that while past shame and social approbation make it perhaps impossible to tell some lives, their absence, as if still present in their effects, sometimes cannot be ignored, and can result “in the emergence of other stories, differently positioned”; in her case, the reader is confronted with the frustration arising from her refusal to “excavate” a history which has been “buried” but is, on the other hand, connected with the loss, uncertainty and confusion this represents. [Natalie Kon-yu (2012),The recounting of a life is a cheat: Unreliable narration and fragmentary memory in historical fiction, TEXT Journal 16 (1)].

[5] This notion is borrowed from historian John Demos, who coined it in his discussion of how fiction and history overlap. See John Demos (2005), Afterword: Notes from, and About, the History/Fiction Borderland, Rethinking History 9.2/3: 329.



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James Vicars, BA (English), Grad Dip Ed (UNE), MA (Communications) (CSU), PhD (UNE), writes both fiction and nonfiction, and is currently completing an account of the life of Australia’s first woman pilot, Millicent Bryant. He has conducted extended research in the areas of biography and fictional biography and also has academic interests in hermeneutics, critical and literary theory, media and communication studies, and in continental philosophy and Indian philosophy. He founded and edited a literary magazine, New England Review, has had poetry and a short story published in journals and has ongoing literary interests in the contemporary novel, life writing and twentieth century English and Australian literature. He is an Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Arts at the University of New England, NSW, Australia.