How do you write about a real-life incident, if that incident happens to be as personal and traumatic as having your family stalked and terrorised by the man downstairs? We speak to acclaimed author and journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit about tackling the task for his novel Fear, and the line between fact and fiction. Fear is the first of his works to be translated into English. Kurbjuweit will appear at Fact to Fiction at this year’s Festival, with Tony Jones.
Fear has its origins in a true story – your own – from more than ten years ago. You could have written a non-fiction account of those real-life events; why did you decide to write a novel instead?
It was my first idea to write this story as non-fiction. But my editor advised me not to, because it would have been a book of revenge. I needed a fictional persona to act as intermediator between me and the facts, to help me to take a cooler, more objective view of the things that had happened.
The second reason is that if I wrote a nonfiction story about myself, it would seem as if my life, and the case itself, were very big, very important. But what happened to me and my family was just one case among thousands, and certainly not the worst or most important.
The third reason: it would be a very intimate thing to reveal everything I thought when dealing with the real-life Tiberius. As Fear is a novel, nobody knows if the thoughts are my own or [protagonist] Randolph’s. I can hide behind this gentleman. Well, I know Randolph’s thoughts are my thoughts too—he’s my invention, after all—but I could have made them up for him. You can’t judge me for what Randolph might think.
By writing this story, you almost bring it back to life again. How difficult was that process for you?
At first it was easy. It had happened so long ago. It was over. Everyone was happy again (except the real-life Tiberius, who had since died), but it was tough to revisit those times, to live through those events again. Rage, tears, regrets—I had a bad time when I wrote this book.
Of course, most stories – fact or fiction – involve a great deal of research. What what did your research for Fear entail?
Most of the research was actually to read my diary of these months. I met with an architect, because Randolph is an archictect. I met with a state attorney who told me how a case like this would be treated in court. I went to expensive restaurants to find out how it feels to eat expensive meals on your own (not too bad).
You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. What’s easier for you?
Non-fiction is my daily work as a journalist. I am used to that. I write as the journalist D.K. writes. As a writer of fiction, I have to find a voice, or a way of writing, for each book and get rid of the journalist’s voice. Very tough.
Social media, ‘fake news’, clickbait – the nature of news consumption is changing. How should a journalist work and write in this landscape?
As always. Stick to the facts, double-check, research, research, research. Don’t come too close to power, to politicians, stars, whoever. The difference is the connection with the reader. It has to be more intense.