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Writing from experience in Letters Home

Posted by. Martyn Bedford
Posted on 05 December 2017

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​​​Novelist and Leeds Trinity University Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Martyn Bedford launched Letter Home, his first collection of short stories last month and has already received great reviews. According to the New York Times: "Martyn Bedford is the genuine article, a writer of unmistakable flair and accomplishment."

In a post originally published by Comma Press​, Martyn discusses to what extent Letters Home is based on personal experience.

Like many authors, I'm often asked to what extent my fiction is based on personal experience. Some readers seem unduly preoccupied with finding the writer in the writing; at least, where novelists are concerned. Philip Roth was recently quoted as saying that readers generally assumed his novels were autobiographical, but that when he published a memoir he was accused of making it up. Perhaps this perception is rooted in the hackneyed creative-writing adage: Write what you know. As if real-life experience trumps all other cards in the fiction-writer's hand – research, for example, or (whisper it) the imagination. Of course, plenty of writers do draw closely on autobiographical material for their novels, sometimes heavily disguised, sometimes draping only the thinnest of fictional veils over the fact.

I never have. None of my eight novels is even loosely autobiographical and none of my characters is a surrogate me. Let me state, for the record, that I have not taken revenge on my former teachers, been a trafficked sex-worker in Amsterdam, become obsessed with tracking down a panther on Ilkley Moor, woken up one morning to find my soul inside someone else's body,  or been sent to a psychiatric clinic after causing my brother's death. I don't even have a brother. A few specific details and incidents in my novels are based on direct experience, it's true, but the resulting scenes are invariably adaptations rather than replications.

Curiously, though, I have mined my past to provide ideas – sometimes the very premise or plot – for a number of my short stories down the years. Why autobiography should surface only when I'm working with a shorter fictional form, I don't know. It might simply be that certain isolated episodes in my life have lent themselves to the kind of snapshot a short story can provide but lack the narrative breadth and complication to yield the full photo-album of a novel. Or maybe I just can't stand my own company for more than a few pages.

Whatever the reason, I can't argue with the math. While fiction beats autobiography 8-0 in my novels, in my new solo collection, Letters Home – which gathers together stories spanning the twenty-odd years of my writing career – no fewer than four of the twelve pieces originate almost entirely in direct personal experience:

In real life, in my twenties, I became seriously ill with dysentery while travelling in Rajasthan. Things might have been much worse but for the help of an Indian motor-parts sales rep in a neighbouring hotel room, who came to my rescue when I collapsed, cleaned me up and fetched a doctor. This episode – which I recorded at the time in my travel journal – is recounted more or less exactly as it happened in my story 'A Representative in Automotive Components', with one notable fictional twist: the protagonist is smuggling drugs.

More recently, and closer to home, in Ilkley, I was about to have a clean-and-polish from my dental hygienist when she received a message from her daughter to say that David and Victoria Beckham, and their kids, had walked into Betty's tearooms, just a few hundred metres from the surgery. The ensuing conversation, and my subsequent attempts to catch a glimpse of the celebrity entourage, are reproduced pretty faithfully in 'The Beckhams are in Betty's'. Save for the introduction of two made-up secondary characters, and the fact that my narrator – bizarrely obsessed by the Beckhams' proximity, rather than merely mildly curious – goes to far greater lengths than I did to verify their presence.

Read more of Martyn's blog here.