Culture Vulture

Blurring the lines between fiction and reality

Writers who prefer to stay anonymous to foreground the fictional landscapes created add a little magic to readers' world

Recently, I interviewed an imaginary character. This was Geronimo Stilton, journalist and author, who has penned more than 100 books for young children about his travels to ancient Egypt, the kingdom of fantasy, back in time, too many places to count.

He is also a fictional mouse.

This was not really how I had expected things to go. I had thought I would be speaking with Elisabetta Dami, the elusive woman behind the wildly popular Geronimo Stilton series.

Dami, according to her online biography, is an Italian children's author who created Geronimo Stilton based on her experiences volunteering in a children's hospital. Unable to have children herself, she invented funny stories with happy endings to entertain her young patients.

There had, however, been some miscommunication. According to the series' licensors, Dami never gives interviews. I was told I would have better luck trying for an interview with Geronimo instead, since "he is the author of his stories".

If one thinks of literature as a magic trick, we usually want to know how the trick is done, and so we look to the magician for clues. But there are times when we would rather not know, when we would rather keep believing that the magic is real.

All the books are marketed as autobiography, maintaining the illusion for much of their young readership that Geronimo, his sister Thea and all their madcap escapades are real.

The books are for children aged six to 12. My friend, who teaches secondary school students at a tuition centre, recounted to me how one of her students confessed that she only recently realised Geronimo's adventures were fiction.

My first instinct was to totally reject the idea of interviewing Geronimo. We can only run interviews with real people, I wanted to rail. Surely this was tantamount to fake news.

Much of the marketing of books centres on the cult of the author. We court and corner them for interviews, talks and signings, so we can pick their brains on where their ideas come from. We draw parallels between their plotlines and their own lives, even as they repeat in exasperation: "It's really not autobiographical."

Interviewing Geronimo might set a dangerous precedent, I thought. What if authors henceforth decide they will speak with me in the personae of their characters only? What if, for instance, graphic novelist Sonny Liew from now on only wants to be interviewed as fictional artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye?

But then I remembered: For a good few days in 2015, I had thought he was real. The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is ostensibly a retrospective on a pioneering but forgotten Singaporean artist, with Liew playing the marginal role of biographer - even though he really wrote and drew Chan into existence.

The world and works that Liew created for his character are so rich, so layered, that I had genuinely believed in Chan until I decided to look him up on Wikipedia.

I will not say I was crushed. Crushed is when you are eight years old and realise that the person who has been leaving Diana Wynne Jones novels under your pillow when you lose a tooth is not the tooth fairy, but your mother. I was, however, ashamed of myself for being so easily fooled.

But is it really fooling? Dami and Liew are far from the first to elide their authorial roles with the aim of foregrounding the worlds they created with their words.

Novelist Daniel Handler turned his pseudonym Lemony Snicket into a plot device for A Series Of Unfortunate Events - about the misadventures of the three Baudelaire orphans - as Snicket is revealed to be more embroiled in the plot than he let on, having once been part of a secret organisation and in love with the orphans' mother.

Other authors, such as Elena Ferrante and Thomas Pynchon, have removed themselves entirely in utter reclusion. Pynchon is famous for avoiding all publicity; in fact, hardly anyone knows what he looks like now. When his 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow won the National Book Award, his publisher had a stand-up comic accept it on his behalf.

When a journalist last year claimed to expose the identity of Ferrante, whose pseudonymous Neapolitan novels have taken Italy and the world by storm, he was decried by enraged fans who believe not so much in the cult of the author, but her cult of anonymity.

In his seminal essay The Death Of The Author, French literary critic Roland Barthes attacks the tradition of privileging the author's biography as the controlling meaning of a text.

"Literature is," he argues, "the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes." An author creates a text, but he or she does not monopolise its meaning. To do so would choke the text, "impose upon it a stop clause".

It is in the reader, not the author, writes Barthes, that the meaning of literature is ultimately inscribed. These meanings are multiple, for they are different for every reader, but such multiplicity should be welcomed.

The figure of the author, of course, will always remain vital to the way books are sold and written about. People will continue to queue for four hours to get an autograph from Neil Gaiman, as they did when he visited Singapore in 2009.

But it is through the reader that the world of a book becomes real. And should the book be so good as to blur the lines between its reality and ours, then perhaps this is less an insult to the intelligence of the reader than a testament to the author's craft.

If one thinks of literature as a magic trick, we usually want to know how the trick is done, and so we look to the magician for clues. But there are times when we would rather not know, when we would rather keep believing that the magic is real.

And so I suspend my cynicism and read on through Geronimo's excitable correspondence about his crazy adventures, his very extended family, and his beloved collection of 18th-century cheese rinds. There is little enough magic left in the world as it is.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Blurring the lines between fiction and reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe