I remember writing an essay at school about how writers had to experience things to write about them truthfully. My teacher wrote on the bottom of the essay 'what about imagination?' and that sentence has stayed with me since: and I'm still curious about where imagination and truth blend in fiction.
I think my essay was more of a personal ambition to break out of the confines of my York upbringing. I was impatient to escape childhood and break out into the world; reading was a free pass to the adult world. In my early teens I read a surprisingly adult collection of books including Icelandic sagas, histories, middle English poetry, and essays on Old English. I wanted to sail the North Sea in a longboat; carry a sword and a cloak and a shield; stand on the black Icelandic beaches; herd sheep from horseback; smoke pipeweed in the Shire. And that ambition to taste life stayed with me, and the conviction that it was only through drinking deep would I somehow find the material to become a writer. The armchair imaginer I would not be, I decided, and although I had not discovered them yet, I decided early on that I would devour life with the same energy as Hemingway, like Orwell, I would immerse myself in the dirt and grime and poverty.
That was how, I found myself in a rural Chinese town at the age of 21, with barely a word of Mandarin. In the next five years I drank deep: I was arrested by the Chinese police, played basketball with Tibetan monks, drunkenly toasted the Dalai Lama, pushed myself to the peak of physical fitness, almost died of dysentery, was evacuated from my home when Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war, felt the nervous prickle of a civilian listening in a city being bombed, and lost my father to suicide.
Of all the experiences, I think it was the last that had the most profound effect, and was the most unsought. At the time I remembered a line from Oscar Wilde, that the best thing for a father to do for his son is die young, and I tried to see the benefits of being fatherless. I am still coming to terms with that loss, or rather, I am still playing with the idea in my writing, and the relationship between fathers and sons is more relevant to me now that I am a father myself.
But I still feel the same as my 12 year old self: that life and experience is the kernel of imagination. But how does this leave the novelist when they try to recreate - say, Dark Age England, or contemporary China. People think that this is a big problem, but it's not something that anyone should be challenged by. I heard an interview with (black) crime novelist Dreda Say Mitchell, when she said that people asked how she could write a white lead. I had a similar experience when I wrote The Drink and Dream Teahouse, a novel in which all the characters were Chinese, at a time when Westerners uniformly included a Western character to hold the readers hand. Strangely enough, it wasn't Chinese people who said this to me, but a British reviewer, who asked what right Westerners had to 'ventriloquise the Chinese'.
It seems an incredibly racist idea that a white person cannot imagine what it would be like to be black, or a black person imagine what it would be like to be Chinese. That would say that each race is so unique that their minds are intrinsically different: and once you believe that they you on the slope towards apartheid. This sentiment is most commonly applied to Chinese than any other nation: they are inscrutable, the stereotype runs, although I have never found them so. They do have a different culture - and what is culture, ultimately, than a set of rules and understandings that govern our everyday interactions and relationships - but we are used to this. In the North Riding of Yorkshire we regarded people from the West Riding as a little odd, and so the people from the East Riding and the Wolds.
Body language is almost universal: the smiles of Amazonian Indians are as transparent to us as the tears of African flood victims, and I doubt they have changed much since Dark Age England. Because at the heart of all stories are characters and their experiences. We are interested in their stories. This is how a writer interests readers. Give readers characters that they can take an interest in, and you move them through the tapestry of life: with all its ups and downs and middling moments.
Aristotle started a debate about plot vs character way back in the BC years, but for me stories are all about character, and plot, as someone said, is just the footprint of characters in the snow.