If there’s a group of people who have a quirky relationship with time, it has to be fiction writers.
One of the main characters of my next novel Absolute Truth, for Beginners is a physicist who claims that time is an illusion. And no, I won’t elaborate more on that – suffice it to say that time is one of the main themes in that story, and as such it has coloured my thinking ever since I started to write it.
And I can’t help thinking that if there’s a group of people who have a quirky relationship with time, it has to be fiction writers. After all, in what other profession can you travel so easily in time, back and forth in one novel only, and live as many lives as you have time to write them?
There must be several characteristics that define a novelist, but one of them is as follows: a fiction writer lives simultaneously in two separate and mutually incompatible time dimensions, real time and fictional time. Real time moves ahead like an arrow, and once a moment has passed, you can never get it back. Fictional time is more malleable, and even more capricious: it is whatever the author wants it to be. And in any case, before your story is published, you will go through that same timeline, over and over again.
I have two calendars in my study, one for real time, another for fictional time. My real-world calendar abounds in everyday dates – dentist’s appointments, dinners, play dates, deadlines. It is minutiae and chaotic, just like life is, and it doesn’t have any logic; not yet, anyway. My fictional calendar is rigorous and selective: it only includes those events that are important for the plot. One day’s events can take more than one chapter, yet then two months can pass (or even two years) and you sum it up in a sentence.
My fictional calendar is currently blocked in October, 2014. There are a few difficult days in that month and I can’t get through them. But once they are in the past – in the fictional past, that is – I’ll travel fairly quickly to this spring, so that before late-April 2015 (real time) I should already be in mid-June 2015 (fictional time). I have decided that June this year will be particularly sunny in Tuscany. But then again, it always is.
Sometimes fictional time can play tricks with you. You visit a place and have a strong sense of déjà vu – you’re positive that you have been there before. Yet then you start to think more carefully, and realise that it wasn’t you who was there: it was your protagonist. Yes, your fictional character has been in a real life place (because you, the author, stole it for your story), and now the event has become a part of your personal memory. Twisted, eh?
Finally I should add that when it comes to time and fiction, I am a diehard reactionary, probably because linear time (with a few flashbacks into the bargain) is all I can handle. But even as a reader I tend to dislike experimental novels where time is all over the place, and the story, or what remains of it, is nothing but a chaotic series of dates and events. I am rarely able to make any sense of them – not without excessive caffeine intake, anyway.
That’s right: time has to be easy for me, in fiction. It has to glide by, effortlessly, so that the story is over before you even realise it.