John Alex Taylor

Truth, Fiction and Unexpected Shoes.

In Apples in the Dark, ten-year-old Alice is telling some truths about being the odd one out at school. These are not my memories, although I was bullied in my first junior school, and I was definitely different. This is fiction.

I couldn’t tell Miss in class. Miss hated having an Alice who was too clever for Year Five. Who wasn’t one of the girls and needed extension work. And asked chopsy questions because she couldn’t stop her mouth doing it. No, I couldn’t tell Miss.

‘I fell over, Miss.’

Was tripped over and kicked in the jaw in the toilets.

Again. With an audience too scared to say a word. Because they would be next.

Justice, the Evil Twins called it. They are the class Justice.

‘I fell over, Miss.’

And I would not. Ever. Cry. Not in front of the Evils. Maybe I could have told Rachel. Had a laugh with her about death rays melting the Evils so that their flesh dripped off. Dripped off enough to stop them ever growing up to be influencers. Class influencers, they called themselves, when they weren’t being Justice.

I had other words for them. A whole dictionary of words I had stored up from Dad when he was off his head. Not that he ever remembered saying them. Dad was sort-of like me.

More victim than bully. And never around.

‘I fell over, Miss.’

 

This scene is the work of my imagination – it’s fictional – but fiction presents truths. Sometimes directly – think of the first line of Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes obliquely – particularly in the character of Rachel, I present a lot of truths about how it feels to live with epilepsy from my past experience. And sometimes truths are presented by negating them – Rachel doesn’t believe that people really want to befriend her. Then there are those characters with an unreliable relationship with truth. Narrator/murderers are a good example of this: truths are presented in a distorted way, or from a distorted set of values. The reader soon learns that any objective truth is to be found elsewhere. There are truths in fiction, but fiction is not fact – fiction is story. And each story presents new perspectives.

I’ve been asked many times who I’ve based my characters on, occasionally by people who suspect they might be in my books. But the answer is never that simple. None of my characters are based on one or even two or three people. They are invented characters who I have lived with long enough to know their back stories, their personalities, their preferences and even their speech patterns. I know a lot more about them than ever reaches the page. Some look like people I’ve known. Some talk like people I’ve known. Some share experiences I’ve shared. But they are all fictional.

Rachel has my epilepsy, but in other ways she is most unlike me. My father was a scientist and so is my daughter, but the truth is that the scientific world has been part of my life for so long that it was natural to make Rachel a scientist.

The same applies for the artistic world. My sister is an artist, but Beth isn’t based on her. Rachel’s experience of modelling for a life class is based on my one, very positive experience of doing the same, many, many years ago. So, in my fictional characters and their behaviour, there are many truths, but hardly any facts.

 

With settings, it is rather different. The contemporary Cardiff setting of Apples in the Dark is as real as I can make it. With a few exceptions, every place in the book can be visited, every street and every bus ride can be taken. However, Rachel’s house in real Morlais Street is entirely fictional. I’ve never even been inside a house in Morlais street, but I once lived in a bed-sitting room in a very similar house in a different part of Roath. I miss those lofty Edwardian ceilings and tiled porches. Beth’s cramped flat in a concrete extension is based on a real flat, but that was on the far side of Cardiff. The monochrome, uninspiring gallery where Beth works is roughly based on a real gallery, but one that isn’t even in Wales. Gwen John’s pictures can be found in Cardiff Museum, but Mathilde… well, you’ll have to make up your own mind, or just accept her as I present her.

 

What matters in fiction is story, a narrative that readers can immerse themselves in and feel swept along by the characters. A few facts may signpost the way, but put too many in, and the story fades away. The reader will draw her own truths, not necessarily the ones the author wants her to see, but the author can point out new perspectives. It’s the chance to present different perspectives on life that keeps me writing. And new perspectives keep me reading – for me, much of the joy in reading new voices is in the discovery of perspectives I hadn’t thought of. Of stepping into unexpected shoes.

 

Apples in the Dark will be available very soon. I hope you enjoy stepping into Rachel’s shoes and Alice’s rather smaller shoes. They have been a joy to write.