Coming Undone

by on January 16, 2011

It’s unsettling when life imitates art,  and a story you have written starts to happen around you.   For example, shortly after I finished the Story of My Face, I met the teenage version of my character, Natalie, in a motel swimming pool near Vancouver airport.   She was called something else and she was in the wrong part of the world, but she was the right age looked exactly as I had imagined her:  wild auburn hair, a milky, freckled complexion. It was baking hot afternoon. She was on her own in the pool, trying to learn to swim. She waded over and started asking the kind of questions Natalie would ask –  about our family and what we were doing  there, and what it was like where we came from.   Her father was busy, she told us, waving at one of the poolside rooms, its door closed, its curtains closed against the sun… We went for dinner and came back, and Natalie was still there in the pool, in the dark,  half an hour before it closed.

Planes roared through the  indigo sky above our heads as my character’s doppelganger and I sank up to our necks in the water so to avoid the mosquitoes that had gathered above the pool.  How old was my daughter?  Natalie wanted to know. Where did she go to school? It was as if I’d stepped into my own book.  Just as the other (I nearly typed real) Natalie does in The Story of My Face, the pool Natalie seemed to desperately want to become part of someone else’s family, and I felt terrible, leaving her.

Recently, I contacted a local palaeontologist in the hopes of borrowing a photograph for a presentation about The Find that I’m giving later this year.  Did I realise, he asked, that here had been a recent discovery on Hornby Island, very like the one in the novel?  I did not,  so I looked it up. It was clear that although the news about the pterosaur discovered, Gwawinapterus beardi, had come out in January 2011, following the publication of the official description,  the discovery itself had taken place back in 2004, while I was writing  my book. Ironically, I was at the time trying very hard to avoid imitating life , and so not writing about the local discoveries, or the real palaeontologists,  about which I knew.  Despite these valiant efforts to keep fiction and fact apart, ‘my’ find had been taking place for real only  two hours drive from where I sat, typing away,  and  just few miles from the novel’s (fictional) setting. Naturally enough, both discoveries were made in the same geological formation.  As in The Find, the story of the real discovery involved a female palaeontologist and, I realised as I read further, there was controversy as to exactly who had found the specimen.

There (I hope) the similarities end, but even so, for an hour or two, the  world about me felt subtly different, somehow less certain.

It’s probably as simple as this: life is so prolific, that anything you can invent will happen, somewhere and probably more than once.  Another interpretation might be that all the stories ever written do exist, in a  multitude of almost parallel  but sometimes touching universes. In every story there are seams between  it the real  world. As I writer I work very hard on my seams,  but somehow they are  fraying, and coming undone…

Hornby Island’s Pterosaur

The Story of My Face McArthur & Co are re-issuing The Story of My Face in  April 2011


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