Prism: Can you reflect on some memorable works of non-fiction you have read/encountered?
Schroeder: I’ve always considered the personal essay to be the highest form of creative nonfiction, so my most memorable reading experiences include works like Annie Dillard's For the Time Being or Teaching a Stone To Talk. Also, Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson, and Alberto Manguel’s The Library At Night. Ditto Seek (Reports From The Edges of America & Beyond) by Denis Johnson, and Just Before Dark by Jim Harrison. All these works alert me to aspects of humanity and the world that are endlessly fascinating and mysterious. They remind me why life is worth living.
Prism: What approaches to non-fiction have you taken in your own writing?
Schroeder: Mostly quite conventional foreground/background, but I’ve also recently experimented with graphic/text combinations, tri-level longform literary journalism, and purposed (theme-based) memoir.
Prism: Do you have any pointers for a successful work in memoir?
Schroeder: Unfortunately yes: to get a major publisher interested in a memoir these days, it seems you either have to be famous, have committed notorious acts, or have had an experience worthy of Sebastian Junger. If at least one of those categories doesn’t apply, you’re probably looking at e-publishing your own book.
Prism: Have you noticed any interesting trends in creative non-fiction lately?
Schroeder: The most worrisome recent trend in creative nonfiction is the tendency to play fast and loose with the ethics of the form, especially with respect to fact vs fiction. This was recently brought to a head by the publication of a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, entitled The Lifespan of a Fact, in which D’Agata shamelessly defends his right to make up and misrepresent facts and details, but still call his work nonfiction. From my perspective, there’s never a good reason for mis-labeling genres. If D’Agata wants to write fiction, be my guest, but why then insist on calling it what it isn’t? Haven’t we already suffered enough from that approach with the profoundly unimaginative label that describes our genre: “nonfiction”?
Prism: How do you balance truth with good storytelling in creative non-fiction? Are there times that the story takes precedence over reality?
Schroeder: For my money, baldly presenting fiction as fact is never acceptable when writing nonfiction, I don’t care what the “story” appears to require with respect to enlivening techniques or literary devices. It seems to me that if you can’t handle the challenge of writing nonfiction effectively, you should probably go back to writing fiction. That said, incorporating fictional elements into nonfiction isn’t the problem. You can incorporate anything you want into nonfiction – fiction, poetry, surreality, total or partial invention, the whole ball of wax – as long as you let your readers know what you’re doing, so they’re not fooled into thinking they’re reading unadulterated nonfiction. Then it’s up to those readers to decide whether your tactics are legitimate, successful, necessary or whatever. The problem arises when writers don’t inform their readers, who then quite reasonably feel cheated when the deed is eventually exposed.
Prism: Do you believe that there are stories that aren't worth the risk of telling? How much responsibility do you think a writer has to protect the feelings/sensibilities/safety of the people they write about?
Schroeder: In theory there is no such thing as a story not worth the risk of telling, but in real life there can be. It depends on many things, not least the issue of whether (for example) the safety of one’s family members (not to mention oneself) is worth endangering. There’s a reason why we have so few full-fledged investigative journalists in Canada. I know a few, and their lives aren’t easy. Writing about the mob, or a corrupt prime minister or powerful corporations means challenging very influential people with the means to do the writer a great deal of harm. But it’s important to remember that the converse can also be true. Writers can be very powerful people as well, especially with an influential magazine or newspaper backing them. If writers aren’t thorough in their research, they can destroy average people as readily as magnates can destroy writers. A person inaccurately accused of pedophilia in the national press will never get their reputation back, even if the papers publish a retraction. So I believe a writer has a huge responsibility to get the story right, as well as a purely human responsibility not to hurt people gratuitously in the pursuit of a story. The pen in your hand is a gun in its holster compared to the flyswatter the average person can muster to defend themselves against a nationally published article. These are sobering considerations that any investigative journalist probably has to consider every working day.
Prism: Thanks, Andreas!