THE SOURCE: “Head Is as Good as Feet” by Mark Lawson, in The Guardian, Feb. 9, 2007.
“Write what you know.” It’s the gospel preached in today’s many fiction-writing workshops. The reading public’s appetite for nonfiction—biography, memoir, histories of everything—also encourages novelists to rely on factual material. Imagination, once free to roam distant continents, is relegated to conjuring up the interior life of the odd character. Obviously made-up stories risk consignment to “slightly disreputable bookshops, or academic categories called ‘fantasy’ or ‘magic realism,’” writes Guardian commentator Mark Lawson.
Occasionally, however, a book tacks against the prevailing literary winds. This year, debut novelist Stef Penney won Britain’s prestigious Costa Book of the Year Award (previously the Whitbread Prize) for The Tenderness of Wolves, a murder mystery set in snowy 19th-century Canada. Penney, a former agoraphobe, hadn’t spent a minute on Canadian soil. She researched the story entirely at the British Library. And she isn’t the first Costa/Whitbread winner to substitute a library card for a passport. For example, Sid Smith won the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award for Something Like a House, set in China during the Cultural Revolution. Smith had never been to the country.