Charlie Quimby on Fiction and Social Consciousness

Charlie Quimby 

Charlie Quimby 

Charlie Quimby, author of Monument Road, will be discussing the relationship between fiction writing and social justice at a talk this Saturday at Homewood Studios. Moderated by educator and writer Julie Landsman, the evening will focus on Quimby's work, but will also open up into a broader discussion. Quimby, whose first novel took on the issue of suicide, is currently writing a novel on homelessness. He hopes that the discussion will inform his current project, which will most likely be published in about a year.

We chatted with Quimby about the talk, and about how he grapples with issues in his fiction. 

With Monument Road and your new novel, did you start with a social-justice issue? Or does that emerge from the characters and the story? 

Both really started [with social justice issues]. Monument Road began with a character who had decided to take his life, and so suicide and what individuals and communities can or can't do about that decision was really the theme I started with. Then I began to create characters and situations around that broader premise. The book grew from that initial impulse to write about suicide, but through the process what I wrote changed as I worked on it. 

With the second book, homelessness is one of the issues in the center of this, and how it relates to prosperity and the comfort zone of people who have possessions and have money and are in a more privileged position in society. This time, I started with characters in mind because I really began to explore it when I was writing the other novel, and didn't end up including any of that in the story. 

As you begin to write and create the story, things change and it raises issues for you as a writer in how you can present what you're thinking about to an audience so that it connects with them. That's sort of the difference between fiction and nonfiction. [With nonfiction], you can marshal your facts when you report, and then write it and argue a case. Writing fiction is different. It's more about how you tap into the empathy of readers, and how you help them see another side of the world or human beings. You try to tell the truth, but you're doing it through fictional means. 

Do you feel like you have a message with this kind of writing, or is it more complicated than that?

It's more complicated, because what I've really learned from writing Monument Road, and then interacting with readers either through book clubs or bookstore appearances, is that there's really a transaction that occurs between the writer and the reader. What really occurs is somewhere in between what I think I may be trying to do and what the person who is reading it encounters, and brings to it themselves. So yeah, I did have a message in the first book in the sense that I had a point of view about suicide, and I had something that I hoped people who read the book would come away with. But there was never anything that was ever explicit in the book. That's part of the challenge. When you're writing nonfiction, you have a thesis and you make it explicit and you argue for it. If you do that with fiction you kind of ruin it. 

And with homelessness, there's not a message I'm trying to put across. I'm trying to portray a struggle. I'm trying to explore some of these things that we all experience when we drive up to an intersection and there's someone with a sign. Do I look at them? Do I stick something out the window? Do I turn my glance away? Do I feel bad? Do I feel good? How do I feel? All of us have our own impulses, and we make assumptions about those people.

Are there other writers you admire who do social-issue-based novel writing? 

One of the things that I hope we will talk about is these other books that, one way or another, open your mind or open your heart or open your consciousness toward something. There are different writers and different ways they do that. One way to do it is through fantasy or creating an alternative world. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale would be an example of that. It creates this whole world, and puts you into it and explores those issues. You know it isn't the real world exactly, but it gives you a different perspective. 

Another way of doing it is going deeply into a person and their experience. [Dalton] Trumbo wrote a book called Johnny Got His Gun. It's an antiwar novel, I guess you could say, but it's written from the perspective of a victim who has totally lost everything -- his eyes, his arms, his legs. It's a really totally different kind of book than The Handmaid's Tale. To Kill a Mockingbird is another example. There are lots of ways that writers can creatively engage in those things. 


Talk-About: Fiction and social consciousness

2 p.m. Saturday, October 25

Homewood Studios

2400 Plymouth Ave. N., Minneapolis