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The advice “Write what you know” can be helpful at times, but on another level is ridiculous. If we wrote only what we knew, then we would write only about ourselves, and I think this defeats one of the great gifts of fiction: the ability to evoke and live in another person’s shoes — which is also why we read fiction. If we can’t develop empathy for people unlike ourselves, then we might as well live in holes in the ground. I believe art stands against the idea of living in holes in the ground.
Though I don’t believe in the saying “Write what you know,” I do believe that an author must know what he or she writes about. I have done years of research for the novel from which “The Designated Marksman” comes. I hope that my facts are accurate.
But perhaps Don Hope’s potshot “Something doesn’t ring true” refers not to my facts but to my failure to render the emotional reality of the narrator. If this were the case, it would be a failure of imagination, not a failure of experience. And it is only because I do believe that I can imagine and render the emotional reality of my character that I write his story. Fiction exists to offer a deep emotional understanding of others and, through our empathy with the individual, approach a sense of universality. Because I believe this, I write fiction.
Hope’s wish that I am a vet suggests an ownership of experience, which is understandable, but by extension a closing of the world, an isolation of individual experience that is destructive. Emotional separations between people inspire callousness and, on occasion, atrocity. So I disagree with him and I do believe it is a question of skill. If my skill failed, I am sorry. I will try to do better in the future, but I will never give up my right to evoke through fiction anything I choose — my only criteria being whether I render the material compassionately and well. And I encourage Hope to write about his experiences, or others’ experiences, or even mine. I hope that he will do it well, but if not, I will still applaud his effort.