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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

Fiona Rintoul on writing about conflicted situations

Last night’s HighlandLIT event was a workshop led by author and journalist Fiona Rintoul. Her debut novel The Leipzig Affair, published in 1984, is about a relationship between a Scot and a German woman during the Communist Regime, and about what follows after the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

Fiona is passionate about freedom of speech, and about the benefits of learning other languages as well as reading work in translation. You can’t fully understand a country and its people, she told us, unless you know its language.

She herself spent time as a student in Communist Leipzig in the 1980s. She was aware of the censorship and propaganda in the press there but came to realise that the press in the free world also had its biases due chiefly to background of the people who had access to its columns.

For a while Fiona wondered if she was qualified to write about post-Communist Germany not herself being a German national, but then she realised that this was in fact in her favour – she could write with objectivity about Germans with roots on either side of the Berlin Wall.

So how do you depict truth in a piece of fiction where there are conflicting views, in a powerful and coherent way?

Fiona had three lessons for us:

Firstly, we should make the most of dialogue. Where complex characters with different opinions and perspectives are dialoguing the reader becomes aware of the issues at stake and their impact on the individuals. Dialogue can be used both to make points, and to further characterisation

Secondly, we should leave the reader to make up their own mind – it’s a version of ‘show, don’t tell.’ We need to cultivate authorial humility. Don’t judge, Fiona insisted, unless you were there, unless you have a right to judge. For instance, how can a writer who wasn’t present pass judgement on those who collaborated with the communist regime? The story will be stronger if we simply allow the characters to express their views, and leave the reader to draw inferences from that

Finally, we should use research sparingly. When writing about a historical event which resonates in the present day, research is vital. Research is the gateway through which we enter the past. But when the time comes for writing, we should use research lightly, only where it essential, only when it furthers the story. Otherwise, our work will be cluttered with ill-digested detail.

Fiona then gave us an exercise: she handed out two news stories, one with an focusing on an Islamophobic issue – attitudes to a Charlie Hebdo cartoon - the other on disagreements over a University Rector’s tween about transgender issues. Once we’d finished, some people bravely read their work. As always, I was really impressed with the quality of work people had produced!

I things everyone enjoyed the evening – and people were still sitting and sharing together long after the event had officially finished. Drew had produced a bottle of whisky to celebrate the fact that one of Fiona’s books is Whisky Island, which celebrates the island of Islay and its whiskies in poetry and prose.

Finally, we asked Fiona questions about her work, and about writing about political themes. One of the points she made was that it seems to only after time has past that we are able to write good fiction about national and political turmoil. When contemporary writers are addressing contemporary crises, for example Brexit, they tend to write allegory or fantasy. Perhaps only after a decade or two have past will it be possible to write realistic Brexit fiction.

Fiona was lovely – I loved her humanity, her warmth, her passion for truth. Thank you, Fiona for this I inspiring and mind-expanding evening!


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