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The butterfly catcher and the road to fiction

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Essay | 10 minute read
To what degree does the source of fiction emanate from the writer's own experiences?

No novelist really ‘makes things up’; not in the making something from nothing, ex nihilo sense. Novelists make something from something. That something is a mulch of memory, experience, imagination, personality, prejudice, happenstance, research, talent, timing and things they’ve read, seen or heard. I say mulch because the material is a bit like the decaying leaves, bark, or compost that’s spread around a plant to enrich or insulate the soil. It’s organic. And novels grow out of an organic mulch of things in a haphazard and contingent way.

A finished, printed novel is hopefully a lovely thing to its author. And my new novel, The Killing of Butterfly Joe, all dressed up in dollar bills made into origami butterflies, is a particularly lovely thing to me. When I first held the hardback in my hand I felt a number of emotions, the main one being relief that the novel I’d been meaning to write for many years had finally become a book that others could read. It is based on or inspired by an experience I had selling butterflies in glass cases in America, thirty years ago. I italicise these phrases because I am not sure I completely trust them to explain the novel’s formation or existence. Some of the events in the novel did happen, some of them are ‘made up’ (another imprecise term). I would not/could not have written the novel had I not had that singular experience; but so many other things were needed to see it emerge – from egg to imago – into a book.

The journey began in 1987 when I was twenty-three. I had just left university and didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career. In Jamaica I met a man from Michigan called Joe who offered me a job selling butterflies in glass cases. He was a force of nature. Statuesque, intelligent, charismatic; a mix of salesman, scientist and saint. His family business (and the whole family were involved) sold the product door-to-door to gift stores and florists around the Great Lakes, and they had recently won a national order from J. C. Penney, a deal that had transformed their fortunes and given them ambitions to expand.

This was partly why I was offered the job. Joe wanted someone with a ‘nice voice’ and ‘educated ways’ to help take things to the next level. I accepted and ended up driving all over the US, selling in thirty-two states. It was a fascinating, exhilarating, sometimes hairy experience. It was pre-internet and pre-mobile, which increased the sensation of having an adventure in a land far, far away. I was having the kind of experience that was the stuff of novels, working for a character who seemed to have walked from the pages of an epic. I was not a writer then but I remember telling myself that one day I would try and write about these butterflying days.

Three years later, in 1990, I was working as a copywriter in advertising when I was struck down with a post-viral condition. I was unable to work and it took me two years to get back to full health. But in that time I read a lot, including the big Russians and the Great American Novels. I also began to try my hand at writing fiction. I wrote some short stories and a tale based on my childhood that would eventually become my first novel.

Among my fledgling efforts was a story describing an encounter with a man called Butterfly Bill. (I must have changed the name to distinguish the character from Joe although, as I later discovered, Joe goes with Butterfly better than almost any other first name.) I still have the green exercise book in which I started writing a story about a middle-aged man who, whilst shopping in a London, comes across a butterfly in a glass case which has a signature on its base, the name of someone he once worked for many years before, and that leads to him into telling his tale. For reasons I can’t fully recall now I got no further with it.

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Life moved on. I wrote other stories and finished my first novel; the green exercise book stayed in the drawer. Then, in 1997, I returned to the States for six months with my wife Nicola and our baby son, Gabriel. My first novel had won a prize and the benefactors stated that the money should be spent on travel. I needed to finish my second novel, Jesus and The Adman. And I wanted Nicola to see how beautiful America was (an America I had been banging on about since my days selling butterflies); I also had a hunch that visiting America would inspire something new. We drove 12,000 miles in a 1969 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and I took my tally of states visited to forty-two.

We eventually holed up in a barn in the Catskills where I finished my second novel and read more American classics. I didn’t know it then, but the books I read at that time would form an important part of the mulch in which The Killing of Butterfly Joe later grew. ‘Rip Van Winkle’ by Washington Irving, the story of a man who lies down by the Kaaterskill Falls and wakes up twenty years later, definitely encouraged me to start my novel in the Catskills. Joe meets Llew, my novel’s narrator, in the same location. As I discovered when we lived there, they have a particular atmosphere, a feeling of being out of kilter with the world, and operating to different time. My narrator, Llew Jones, is reading this tale when he meets Joe and Joe renames him ‘Rip Van Jones’, as he thinks it’s a better name to sell with. I also read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It describes a very different America but it has a narrator who is describing an eponymous hero who has an elusive, mythical quality. There is something of Nick Carraway in Llew: both are young men slightly out of their depth who learn uncomfortable truths about themselves.

I should also doff my cap to Homer. My narrator’s stated ambition is to ‘see America and write about it’ – preferably in epic verse, along the lines of the Odyssey. He even calls it his ‘Americodyssey’. In a way he achieves his ambition – just not in the way he thought. Fragments of epic verse break up his confession, although they owe more to Dr Seuss than Homer! Which brings me to perhaps the most influential book; the one I read to Gabriel every night: The Cat In The Hat Comes Back. The Cat In The Hat is a great creative/destructive creation, a character who cannot be pinned down or sit still, and who causes mayhem and joy in equal measure. Joe is also someone who walks in to a room, sets a plate spinning and is gone by the time the plates crash to the ground.

When we returned to the UK, I had an idea for my third novel but it wasn’t set in America and it didn’t feature butterflies. It seems odd now, but I still wasn’t doing the obvious and drawing inspiration from my butterfly-selling days. Whenever I tried I couldn’t pin it down. Maybe the experience was still too close, too clear and defined, too much its own thing to bend to my will. Anyway, economics and the need to make a living determined what I wrote next. As Raymond Carver suggests in his fascinating essay, ‘Fires’, the fact that a writer has young children and no additional income probably had more influence on his writing than the great literature he might have been reading and aspired to emulate.

I had changed my former profession of copywriter for that of scriptwriter, and after getting a commission from BBC Drama I found myself with a new day job. It was enjoyable and well-paid work; although I had ambitions to write more novels, there wasn’t the time to try. For the next few years I wrote scripts for film and television. Then, in 2010, a commission to write a screenplay based on the story of a decision my grandfather made whilst in post-war Hamburg led to me writing my next novel, The Aftermath – another idea that had remained in the bottom of the drawer, next to the butterflies. The book did well and put me in the position of being able to take time to write another. But what? One day, over coffee, I was talking to a friend about jobs we once had. After telling him about my job as a butterfly salesman in America, he looked at me and said, ‘You have to write that!’ And so I did.

I was recently asked by a reader which bits of the novel are true and which bits aren’t. It’s a common question (perhaps one of the most common questions) a writer is asked. The problem is that the actual and the fictional become so entwined in the writing that it’s hard to answer it accurately. The literal way of answering it involves going through every character and incident in the book: I did sell butterflies in glass cases in America, I didn’t sell a rare collection of butterflies for a million dollars; I did work for a charismatic character called Joe, I didn’t get arrested on suspicion of killing him and put in jail for six months; the family business I worked for was presided over by a powerful matriarch, but her face wasn’t deformed by a fire and she never threatened to shoot me.

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Ultimately, I’m not sure it really matters which bits of a novel are inspired by actual events and which are made up. Of course, a great life experience or adventure can be a gift for a writer, but they still have to transmute it into a story worth reading. When writing, the pressing issue is how well can I transfer the pictures in my head to the heads of my readers. And do my words and sentences have a fundamental accuracy of statement? It’s the same goal whether I’m describing something that actually happened (Joe being arrested for hawking wares at a florist’s in Kentucky) or something totally invented (selling a five-winged butterfly to a man called the Wizard for a million dollars).

It’s interesting to know that Kerouac drove across America or that Melville was a whaler. But more important is that we believe in the word-worlds these writers create, without seeing the joins between what might be invention, research or a recounting of an actual experience. A novel requires and is trying to justify the assent of the reader, asking them to believe in its possibility and reality. What the novelist uses to achieve this is up for grabs. I think everything is a potential ingredient in the baking of the fictional cake. Where the ingredients come from doesn’t matter; all that matters is how the cake tastes.

The road from having the experience of selling butterflies to creating a fiction about selling butterflies has been full of delays, blocks, turns, sudden accelerations and some crashes. But perhaps the long route was necessary for it to get there. I think the distance on the initial experience was helpful. It made it easier to confabulate the memories into something new.

I’m also glad I didn’t write it when I was twenty-five. I can see that other things had to happen. A wisdom needed to be gained. Other things needed to be written and read. On paper, it took me two years to write. But it was really thirty years in the making. Even in the years it sat in the bottom drawer not being written it was forming, like a caterpillar fattening up on all the things it would need to eventually become a butterfly.

Rhidian Brook’s The Killing of Butterfly Joe is published by Pan Macmillan