Notes on reading, writing, books & publishing

Anthony McCarten

Author’s Note

Anthony McCarten

Author of Brilliance

Fast and loose: when applied to historical fiction, the writer wishes to get away with murder, and be praised for it.

Posted by Anthony McCarten on 28 Mar 2013

| Comments (4 so far)

Fast and Loose: sounds like a cricket term for a ball badly bowled. It derives, actually, from a medieval cheating game, where something seemingly stuck “fast” becomes, in an apparent act of magic, “loose.”

Fast and Loose: how often the term is now used by writers to warn the reader or viewer to be prepared for a healthy disregard for historical fact in the story they are about to read or witness.

And the reason we need such a term?  Because of the inbuilt tendency of life to not ever quite conform to a well-told story, hence the temptation for the writer to extemporize, to play, to invent, to conflate, to even falsify events and finally,  by an act of apparent magic, apply the angled cricket bat of fancy to the hard, straight ball of fact,  sending it rushing on some surprisingly new trajectory.

New: the critical word here. Newness. To introduce the unforeseen into the foreseeable.  To surprise. To take what we know, or think we know, and present in a fresh way. To make the wise, unwise. To make the learned ignorant. When applied to historical fiction the writer wishes to get away with murder, and be praised for it.

But praise is not always forthcoming. Should the writer take too many liberties with famous facts then await the backlash. In anticipation of this backlash “The Author’s Note” is born. In this half-page apologia, the author readies the reader for quite a bit of fastness and more than a smattering of looseness.

I wrote such a note for my new, upcoming novel, Brilliance, which does small injury to virtuous fact as it pertains to the lives of J.P.Morgan and Thomas Edison. Fortunately both men are dead — no small detail, as writers (and their lawyers) meddling with the lives of living entities will tell you — and so they cannot admonish or sue me for setting them in rooms they never entered, spoke lines they could never speak, committed crimes for which the evidence is only circumstantial at best. 

In his piece in the Observer, Robert McCrum, suggested that the Author’s note seemed proof of a lack of inventive gumption in modern literature. Why the need to explain, to apologize for anything? Wasn’t literature’s charter to invent, at all costs, to take no prisoners while doing so? Only wimps feel the need to explain. Publish and be slammed.

I have a slight problem with this. If you’ve ever, as a writer, had to face your audience, at a Q&A session, after a reading or the screening of the film adaption of a story based on historical record, then you’d realize that everyone simply wants to know where the facts end and where the fiction begins. “Mr. McCarten, can I ask… how much of this story is true?” It’s as if the audience has put on hold their emotional reaction until confirmation is delivered that the key scenes that moved them — the key ones, the ones that depict the hero taking up a knife and stabbing, or opening the vault to steal millions, or sending the telegram that will alter the world — whether they actually happened. If they did, then the reader/viewer is all yours:  you have a devotee at once. But if you reply, as on occasions I have had to do, “Well, I have played slightly fast and loose with that bit”  the moan in the crowd is pronounced and prolonged, I can assure you. The gumption is not lacking in the writer, I would claim, but it in the reader.  To address their lack of gumption - for the writer has already proved his licentious credentials by writing of the unhistorical historical in the first place - the Author’s Note tries to embolden the reader. It’s not an apologia, it’s an analeptic. I argue here that the Author’s Note is a courtesy to the reader, no more, and that Mr. McCrum is bowling something of a wide ball, and I plead for the referee to raise a judicious finger and award one meager run to the lonely batter.

Anthony McCarten’s novel, Brilliance is out from Hawthorne Books October 1, 2013. His debut novel, Spinners, won international acclaim, and was followed by The English Harem and the award winning Death of a Superhero, and Show of Hands, all four books being translated into fourteen languages. McCarten has also written twelve stage plays, including the worldwide success Ladies’ Night, which won France’s Molière Prize, the Meilleure Pièce Comique, in 2001, and Via Satellite, which he adapted into a feature film and directed, premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.  Also a film-maker, he has thrice adapted his own plays or novels into feature films, most recently Death Of A Superhero (2011) which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Anthony divides his time between London and Los Angeles.


Hi Anthony: Wonderful piece here, and one I personally relate to. My own historical novel, published by Hawthorne (“The Luminist”) similarly played quite fast and loose with historical fact, chronology and the socio-political dynamics of two cultures in 19th century Ceylon, and I loved every lying minute of it. I think Hawthorne saw us as kindred spirits in the way we play with history in the name of fiction, as I was so very fortunate to read your wonderful “Brilliance” and blurb it, happily so. All the best, and please do let me know if you ever get to LA. I have a reading series here and would be honored to invite you.

David Rocklin on 28 Mar 2013

Hi David,
I’m actually in LA right now, sitting under one of your relentlessly blue skies, writing at the side of the kind of pool Hockney made famous. Gimme your number and let’s talk (a little more privately than this!)  Anthony

Anthony McCarten from LA on 29 Mar 2013

Best way to reach me is email (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) or cell (310/489-1474). How long are you here for? We have a reading in 2 weeks, on Sunday the 14th of April. Would love it if you wanted to come and read, or just meet some of the other writers.

David Rocklin on 30 Mar 2013

We had been at this website and it is amazing experience out to be here. from meerut on 02 Aug 2018


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