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'Fiction springs irresponsible and unfettered'

22 February 2014

'Fiction springs irresponsible and unfettered from every soil. A novel is an entertainment, worked over, calculated, staged, shaped. Yet its genesis is always in the writer's real pleasures, enthusiasms, griefs and confusions. Writing one is quite unlike journalism. In earlier novels the rags of my real preoccupations kept surfacing unexpectedly, interwoven into brand new garments. Threads come in from all directions: the sea, the spiritual poverty of modern education, variety artistes, idealistic organic farmers, the modern military, unrequited love, Venice, Transsexualism, late Shakespeare. So it was probably inevitable that the most intense and disastrous experience of all would provoke a fictional mother and a fictional grief: both real and unreal...

As a reader I'm all for good biography, autobiography and memoir. But there is a magic in novels: in writers who plunge over the edge and offer a whole parallel universe. Novel writing is not easy, and only rarely makes much money. Often (certainly in my case) it only partially succeeds. Yet novels feed something in us that non-fiction never can. It is a form worth trying, both as a reader and as a writer. And for judging a novel, I have never found a better set of tests than the grumpy ones ascribed to Philip Larkin: "Do I believe it? Do I care? Will I go on caring?" If you get as far as the second, you're winning.'

Libby Purves, author of Shadow Child and Acting Up, in The Times