Last weekend’s episode of This American Life depicts a journalist’s worst nightmare: Finding the compelling story you thought was true turn out to have so many falsehoods that the only ethical thing to do is retract it.
In January, the radio program aired part of a monologue by Mike Daisey about terrible working conditions in the Chinese factories that make Apple products. I listened, transfixed, horrified. Problem is, he fabricated many of the anecdotes, and when This American Life directly asked him about facts in his story, he lied. A reporter for another public radio program, Marketplace, exposed the discrepancies.
As a former journalist, I feel This American Life’s pain. When you represent a story as true, when you say you saw something or you talked to someone, that means you actually did so. I am also saddened. Working conditions in China are harsh, but knowing that parts of Daisey’s story are not true hurts the cause of improving those conditions.
The historical novelist in me see things in more of a nuance. I portray real people fictitiously and even create people to interact with them. In my novel The Cross and the Dragon, I invented a whole family for my hero, Hruodland. With the historical information about Hruodland consisting of part of a sentence in Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne, any portrayal of Hruodland is fictitious, including (and especially) “The Song of Roland.”
Historical novelists debate on how far to stray from actual events. My own philosophy is that the key word of historical fiction is fiction. I endeavor to accurately portray the characters’ times and culture but will take a few liberties for the sake of the story. I also believe in including an author’s note, that place where I confess where I made stuff up. It is especially important in a period not well known to a general audience.
Daisey’s response to This American Life’s retraction includes, “My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.”
We who write historical fiction routinely make such admissions. We trust that our readers will be moved by our stories even when they know we speculated, embellished, and invented. I wish Daisey had the same trust in his audience.