I’ve had some intriguing reactions from readers but it was one from a man in New York that provoked this blog. He wrote to say that he was halfway through and enjoying Material Evidence very much. I wrote back to thank him and, in the course of the email, asked ‘OK, whodunnit, then?’
A couple of days later, I got another (600 word) email in reply. He was still just over halfway through the book but was confident that he knew who the perpetrator was. He then named the character and, in great detail, mapped out motives, the web of relationships that triggered and justified them and the various ways in which the investigating policeman unravelled them. He was, of course, ‘wrong’ but, as I wrote that word, I knew I had to put it in quotes because his reasoning was flawless. If my mind had worked in the same way as his, I could have written the book as he saw it and, assuming that my style was consistent and the publisher saw no other flaws, it would have worked as well as my own version. (I should qualify that by saying that I actually think mine is a better outcome because it’s more surprising and – I hope – thought-provoking.)
The fascinating thing about the experience is that it confirms what I’ve said many times before in discussions and articles about fiction – that it’s a collaboration between writer and reader. The act of reading is a creative act. The characters in novels, even though their histories are outlined far more precisely than those of any ‘real’ people, are still far from lifeless, predictable beings. Their paths can diverge and introduce complexities which may not have occurred to their creator. This isn’t to question the authenticity of the writer’s vision and achievement – on the contrary, the fact that the finished article is still capable of multiple interpretations confirms its dynamism, its life and its ‘reality’.
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