Friday, 13 March 2009

Controversy at coffee time

Good morning, come on in. I was up early this morning so all the drinks and cookies are laid out ready.

I had a question planned for today, but events in the media over the last week or so have prompted another one. I want to talk about Julie Myerson's latest book.

For those of you outside the UK or who have just missed the furore, Julie Myerson has written a book called The Lost Child which chronicles the 'addiction' to skunk cannabis of her oldest son and how the family threw him out of the house at the age of 17. There is a good summary of the story so far here and a response from the son here, you'll find lots more through Google. The book has now been rushed out months early to take advantage of all the publicity. It has also been disclosed that Myerson anonymously wrote a close to the knuckle 'Living with Teenagers' column in The Guardian.

Now this caught my eye for two reasons. Firstly, I too have a 17 year old son. Secondly I am writing a novel which is very loosely based around some past events in my own family. I also have an autistic child and I am writing about how autism can impact on a family. Although the characters in my novel are definitely not my family and the story is thankfully not ours, some of scenes are inevitably heavily fictionalised versions of real life events or anecdotal evidence from others. Those events were over 10 years ago, I am being very careful about what I disclose and my autistic son will never be capable of reading it. But the Julie Myerson story has made me a little nervous.

Without wanting to judge Julie Myerson, here is my question to you today. Would you write a book about your own troubled child (or other close family member) or would you consider it exploitation?


Graeme K Talboys said...

I would only do it directly with that person's permission (or when everyone involved was dead). After all, my perception of another person's 'troubled' existence might not be their perception of their life.

Using one's experience of life for a fictional account is somewhat different, especially if you aren't simply lifting events (plagiarising reality?) and using them wholesale. I don't think it is possible to avoid putting one's experience of life into a book, and the closer the subject gets to our own experiences, the more likely we are to ground that work in what we know.

Flowerpot said...

I think this is a very tricky question and onethat will run andrun as has been proved by the huge media publicity. I agree with Graeme - personally I would either do it with their permission or I would fictonalise the whole thing. But I don't have a 17 year old son in this position so I don't know.

Juliette M said...

I don't like the 'miserable memoir' genre, so I would not do it. I think what Julie Myerson has done is disgusting quite honestly. This could put a stain on her son's life permanently. he may have done some bad things but he did not deserve to have his life splattered all over the place like this.

Fictionalising I believe is different, if you fictionalise it well enough. I have some experiences in my novel that have come from my real life; however, they are not exposes (sorry my computer wont let me do the accent over the e there) like this one.

As for her partner saying that he had never read a Dave Pelzer book, the first thing that came to mind when I read the title "The Lost Child" was "oh I see Dave Pelzer's written something new". Go figure.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I would, actually, but I'd have to have permission from all concerned.

We get a 'book' like this every year, it seems.

SueG said...

Excellent question. Although I did draw on some of my family's experiences in "Tangled Roots" I made sure to use them as starting points for fictional events -- it's more creative that way anyway, I think. But I don't believe that "art" should allow people to be selfish, and writing something that could be seriously harmful to somebody else, just for your own muse (or money) is certainly not something I would ever want to do.

Un Peu Loufoque said...

I think whether one likes it or not ones own personal experiences are reflected in what one writes and come out whether consciously or not on the page. I find I can not actaully deliberatly write about events I am too close to, they alwasy sound far too needy or teenage angst like to me, but when I write fiction I suddenly discover, for instance, a character emerges who resembes in some way that of a real person,often someone who is being rather annoying at the time hence it is a sort of therapy to have them eaten by a fictional lion!

I wouldnt I think write about my children only becasue I think I am too close to see the picture clearly.I also feel it is rather exploitive.

Captain Black said...

Greetings everyone. I'm now thoroughly enjoying my mocha, though have resisted the cookies. So far.

As to the question: it would seem to depend largely * on whether it is fiction or non-fiction, though I realise that some books are touted as "based on" real events, and there are probably other grey areas too. If someone uses a person or persons, without their permission, for a book in which they are clearly recognisable; then that, in my opinion, is exploitation.

Personally I can't stand these fly-on-the-wall and "reality" things, in whatever format they are produced. I would never produce such a thing myself.

Juliette: You can do an acute accent with é to produce an √©. There's a list of many the symbols with diacritical marks, here. So the word expos√© would be written as exposé
I hope that made sense.

* Phew, almost split an infinitive there.

Rowan Coleman said...

Great question, I read Alison Pearson's take on this a couple of days ago and my first impulse was to agree with her view, which is don't exploit your child if you don't have that child's full permission and best interests at heart and don't look like you are cashing in on you own child's misery for publicity. On the other hand I don't know Julie Myerson and I've always found her to be a great writer, who knows her real motivations and how much she's been swept up in a media storm that is so often keen to blame mothers and make us all feel terrible.

For myself I would never write about another person's troubles without their permission and involvement. I use my own experiences quite candidily and although I wouldn't expressly say if material in a novel is based on my life, if someone asks me I tell them the truth. I wrote about date rape in my second novel and found that it reached a lot of women who'd experienced the same thing and made them feel less alone, and that included me. So I was pleased I did it.

At the end of the day you need your friends and especially your children to be able to trust you, and I would never never betray that trust.

Clare Sudders said...

Hmmm, it's so easy to make snap judgements. I have sympathy for a lot of the criticisms made of Julie Myerson, but I have sympathy for her too. And her son.

I think she probably shouldn't have written or published this book, and I think she and her husband have undoubtedly made parenting mistakes.

But I also know that urge to write about the things that move you, and the things that move you invariably involve people that move you... and that's where it gets dangerous.

I have recently cut back on the amount of stuff I write on my blog about my son Felix, who is now 6 and will soon be old enough to google himself and have his friends do it too... and then tease him for what they find.

I once got into enormous trouble with my family when I dashed off an angry unguarded post about my mum which ended up causing a massiev amount of hurt to some other family members who were goign through a very painful family crisis at the time. They were furious with me, and rightly. I've been much more careful since then.

I've just written an article about my grandparents for the Guardian, and though it hasn't been confirmed yet, it looks as though it will be a double-page spread in the G2 on a Friday very soon. I was really careful about it. My grandparents are still alive, although one has Alzheimers. In order to make it a good article with high impact, in order to be true to my writing self... I've included a lot of personal stuff. So I've sent every incarnation of the article to my grandfather, and to my aunts, for approval. I've made it clear that I won't go ahead if anyone doesn't want me to.

In fact the article is about how much I love them, and describes them throughout in glowing terms. But it's also about how sad it is that they have had to leave their home, and how hard it can be for everyone to cope with Alzheimers. In that sense, it invades my family's privacy. Also, my grandmother was never keen on people airing their private lives in public, and she is the one person I haven't been able to consult. She knows nothing about it. Also, you could say there's a certain amount of emotional blackmail involved, in that I've made no secret of the fact that I'll be really pleased, and it'll have a positive impact on my writing career, if the article is published. I've never been in the Guardian before, and it pays well.

I hope I would never go as far as Julie Myerson has, but I do understand what she has done, and why. It's a very difficult situation.

Kate said...

I have been rather addicted to the Myerson stuff, and I think she did the wrong thing and went too far. Why not either a) write about it and then wait ten years to publish or b) fictionalise it to such an extent that no-one would make the connection?

In her many interviews on the subject, she kept saying 'but I didn't identify him' - yet all the interviews, including the one by the Bookseller that kicked it all off, have her talking about her experience with her son having inspired the book.

I am certain that our experiences do shape our fiction but I don't believe that exploiting the life of someone young and vulnerable is legitimate.

(Besides, fiction offers so much more scope for creativity and even 'truth', IMO)

liz fenwick said...

I was brought up that you can judge the act but never the person. In this case I can say that the book in the circumstances that we have been told is wrong and I can see serious long term damage to her son possibly coming from this. However I have no idea what truly brought her to this point.

Re your question Cathy. I think ficitionized accounts are fine and usually stronger. AS writers we are such sponges that we can't help but write about what we experience in our lives.

Good topic Cathy :-)

KayJay said...

What I find incredible is her attitude that this was the story she HAD to write. Well, fine. Just don't publish it. Or, as others have said, wait or heavily fictionalise or preferably, both.

This is just a reality show. She may write well, but it's trumped-up Kerry Katona/Jade Goody fare for the chattering classes - except worse in my view - she's exploiting her child for money and calling it art.

Would I do something similar? Nope. Would I take a loved one's story and use it as inspiration for a book? Absolutely, but with permission and sensitivity and a whole big heap of made-up stuff to protect the people involved.

Debs said...

Great question.

I have a 17 year old son, and although I wouldn't have anything incriminating to write about him, I cannot imagine publishing a book about him in any form. Surely he is entitled to his privacy.

I believe that if JM was so desperate to change the way youngsters feel about drugs, then surely she could have written a fictional account.

I'm sure the family have suffered greatly due to their son's choices, but now his story is public fodder, he'll be remembered for all the wrong reasons, and at such a young age too.

JJ Beattie said...

I'm horrified by what she's done but I can't comment on what's really happened inside her family. Those two articles are proof that it's all down to perspective.

I think it's fine to use your real emotions and experiences in your fiction but not the direct use of what you allege happened.

Clare Sudders said...

I still think they shouldn't have done it, and can't help wondering whether there are a whole other load of issues going on besides drug addiction, but this is interesting.

Still, I think there should be a rule, and it shouldn't be broken: Do not write non-fiction about people you know, unless they are in on the project right from the start and it's unlikely to cause them harm. And even then, exercise extreme caution.

As others have said, you can easily repackage, remash, use your creative skills to cherry-pick non-fictional events and then turn them into fiction. And if you have a real story that you think really needs telling - there obviously is something to be said for people suffering from problems being able to read the true stories of how others have coped in similar circumstances - then do it anonymously.

wordtryst said...

I have written the first draft of a memoir on raising my son. It is mostly about the joy he brought me, but it also touches on the abuse we both suffered at the hands of his father in the early years, because that is part of our story. He is now 25, and I will not submit it for publication until he has read the manuscript and assured me that he has no objection to any of it.

One of my WIPs is a novel that draws on real people and incidents in my life, and on family history. I don't intend to get anyone's permission for that one because it is mostly fiction. Some of the recognizable characters are dead, and the others are so fictionalized that I don't anticipate any problems with them.

I absolutely would not write about living people in any way that might cause them embarrassment. (Abusive, negligent ex-husbands, however, I do not consider 'people'.) Julie Myerson's son might have absolutely no problem with the publicity; has anyone seen any feedback on his feelings about the issue? And in answer to Debs' comment, a fictionalized account of something like this would never have the same impact as the true-to-life version. Remember the Stephen Frey uproar a few years ago? His publisher knew that real-life drama has more impact - even if it has to be manufactured. And an anonymous version of true events is a copout, imo. You can't write about potentially explosive true events and hide behind anonymity.

By the way, I believe some of these so-called media storms are manufactured, so I wouldn't worry too much. The publicity, especially negative publicity, it seems, sells tons of books.

Calistro said...

I couldn't write anything intensely personal, full stop - whether about me or about someone I loved - and submit it for publication. I hate the idea of laying myself and my life out there to be judged and commented on by the world (my worst nightmare would be being famous). Obviously I have a blog so that may sound like a contradiction in terms but very little of my personal life makes it onto my public blog.

Of course I'll happy fictionalise and exaggerate things that have happened to me in my fiction but mostly I'm laughing at myself rather than other people so that's okay (I hope).

Kate.Kingsley said...

Great topic ~ very timely :-)

Like many others, I've been interested in this since the story broke, and I'm in two minds about the whole thing.
One the one hand there's an argument for the case that the son has had his privacy invaded, and that this is a huge betrayal of parental trust.
And on the other hand, having your family damaged by the violent & dishonest behaviour of an addict is something I can't imagine and hope I never have to experience. Do I think JM was misguided in publishing this book? Yes. Do I think that she pursued an unwise course of action because she was unable to see another resolution to the problem? Yes.
I'd like to say that I would never go down the route of putting something like this into the public domain, but then I hope never watch one of my children destroy themselves, frighten and threaten their younger siblings or attack me and my husband verbally and physically. Who knows what I would do if I had been in that situation? I assume, on some level she hoped that getting the issue out in the open would be a positive step. Unfortunately it hasn't worked out that way.
I'm pretty uncomfortable with the ease with which JM has been judged, especially given that the majority of those commenting have presumably not read the book as it has not yet been released.
I suppose I'd like to think that I'd do no such thing to any member of my family. But I've not been to hell and back ~ maybe if I had my view would be different.

PS: I hadn't realised it was JM who wrote the 'Living with teeneagers' column ~ I used to shudder reading that, as the older son came across as so agressive and manipulative.