Spring 2006

 

 

 


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childhood as a renewable source: Tim Wynne-jones and memories in fiction
Matthew Spillum

There was a sea of familiar faces in the Ecolab room on the third floor of the Metro State Library to hear Tim Wynne-Jones. A veritable who’s who of current and former classmates from every writing class I have taken at Metro took seats to hear the award-winning Canadian novelist speak. Many of them had obviously read his work before, giving me that odd man out feeling. I decided to stick it out, though, since I had plenty of people to talk to.

As I had never read anything by Mr. Wynne-Jones, I had little idea what to expect to hear. Alison McGhee’s introduction was effusive enough to whet my appetite, however. When he finally took the podium, he revealed that the first part of the reading would actually be a lecture of sorts, followed by an excerpt from a new, unpublished, novel for young adults. The title of the lecture was enough to keep any writer enthralled. “Family Matters: Deep Dark Secrets and Festering Lies” was an exploration of the place childhood memory and fantasy has in creating fiction.

He began by telling an old family anecdote that involved him running away from home with a tea-cozy on his head. Apparently, like so many cute childhood stories, this tale made the rounds at many family gatherings in the intervening years. But when Tim analyzed that story years later, talking to his mother (in her last lucid days), he unraveled the story’s central facts, and discovered that they were not entirely true. The crux of the anecdote is that all of these memories we have consist of a collection of random events, and it is in the reconfiguration of those events that we reexamine those memories we have taken for granted. This is the configuration, as he put it, of a narrative.

The idea that memoir and memory is the gateway to fictional narrative has been a powerful influence throughout my discovery of a prose voice. It was exhilarating to hear so well regarded a writer confirm that for me. Looking at the skeletons in our collective closets as an “unexamined wealth of information,” we writers can make much of the fact that, as he so eloquently pointed out, “none of us is free of past intrigues.”

The piece he chose to read from was a scene from a new manuscript in which a large family, the Norton-Nortons, is having dinner in their new house in 1962 Ottawa. The main character, ten-year-old Rex Zero (or Norton minus Norton, so pointed out by a new classmate) tries to engage his siblings in the news of an escaped panther roaming the park near their new home, while his older sister discusses the oncoming facts of mutants and nuclear war. The piece, Tim explained, began as a sort of memoir. Though, as he put it early in the reading, “I usually don’t find out the theme of one of my books until I read a review,” here he was aware fairly early what the theme was.

Growing up in the early sixties under the constant real dread of nuclear destruction placed an indelible stamp on him. It wasn’t that the bizarre (and, frankly, absurd) elements of his story were based on facts, but that they were built on facts. Here, then was this concept of “childhood as a renewable resource.” Names and actions and fragments of conversation became characters. Narrative, as he explained it, “is often the art of taking factual things and lying about them.” This resonated with me to my white-hot core (thank you, Robert Olen Butler).

I wasn’t alone in my fascination with this artist, and, of all the readings I have attended; this one seemed to have the most relevance to me as an aspiring writer. I chalked that up to the setting and the audience. So few of the questions were of the “I’m a huge fan, and I just want to know where you got the idea for Character X” variety, which was a refreshing change of pace in my reading experience.

Instead, it had all the best qualities of a good classroom lecture and a good (and well chosen) reading of work. Of course, many other people from our class attended the same reading and may have differing takes, but that would merely be a function of what Tim Wynne-Jones might call the “differing visions of the ‘truth’” that good fiction would be based on.

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