fiona farrell

Author's Note from Decline and Fall on Savage Street.

This novel is a companion volume to a non-fiction book, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, both prompted by the earthquakes that struck my home town, Christchurch, in 2010/11 and their aftermath.

Fiction and non-fiction offer complementary perspectives, one factual, one imaginative.

I am normally a writer of fiction, but in 2010/11, fiction felt irrelevant. What mattered was reality. What mattered were the factual narratives, thousands of which have been recorded and deposited in archives across the city. Faced with such accounts, fiction fell back, abruptly exposed as an expression of ego, a mere display of technique with its roots in Enlightenment notions of individualism.

I think this may be a common response to disaster. When I began thinking about it, I could come up with no novels, for example, written during the Blitz by any of the many writers who were living in London at the time. The first I could recall was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, written not during that appalling era, but long after the war was over, in 1948, and from a great distance, in southern Ireland.

Writing, however, is something I need to do to understand what is going on around me. I was puzzled by the city in its post-quake phase and by the decisions those in power were making concerning its reconstruction. I began collecting newspaper reports, articles, hearsay. I began taking notes, talking with people, thinking in a focused way about the current state of my city and my country and how we might have got here. Eventually, those folders of data were worked into a work of non-fiction, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, which was published in 2015.

But fiction has its role, and one I value. It can penetrate, go straight to the heart of things, into feelings and the private and secret places of other lives. It allows access to multiple points of view, sometimes almost simultaneously.

Stylistically, it exploits metaphor, creating links between apparently disparate components to suggest underlying meaning or possible significance. Fiction shapes and trims the random detail of existence to give a reader a pleasing assurance in design and control and purpose.

Fiction also operates within a different version of time. I became acutely aware in writing The Villa at the Edge of the Empire of the impossibility of closure. In non-fiction, there is no such thing as an ending, just a pause in the continuous flood of reality. No decision is final, no fact permanently unalterable. Time is in operation, changing meaning even before your fingers have left the keys.

Fiction on the other hand, possesses a structure that is outside time. Events have a beginning, middle and end. Non-fiction is improvisatory, a constant jazz riff on fact, while fiction is classical, an orchestral symphony, arriving at last at an unmistakable Ta DUM!

Both these books use the same data base and I hope that between them, they will tell a single story: about my city and my country and what was laid bare when the walls fell down one spring night in 2010.

Fiona Farrell
March, 2017