Writing The Good Liar

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

Gregory Maguire describes how he overcame his fear of research and historical accuracy.

Many years ago a new movie about King Arthur was released. The reviews in the newspapers were not favourable. One reviewer remarked, 'When Sir Lancelot leaps off the balcony onto his horse, his cape flies up and the audience can see that his tunic is closed with a zipper up the back.' The point was that there were no zippers back in King Arthur's day. The researchers had made a mistake. I laughed at the review -- at the idea of Sir Lancelot struggling to zip up his beautiful blue vestments -- but the notion of making mistakes about the past frightened me, too. For a long time I would not consider setting a novel anyplace but HERE and NOW -- or else in a fantasy land that could not be criticized, for I would have made up all its rules.

But time marches on and I got older, and, I suppose, braver. Then the time came when the idea of The Good Liar occurred to me. Here's how it happened. I was teaching creative writing in an American school. I told my twelve-year-old students to take a sheet of paper and write down a paragraph about a person. The assignment was that the audience who read or listened to this paragraph ought to be able to visualise the person, and also have some strong, identifiable feeling about him or her. As a teacher I always do the assignment too. So I sat down and wrote the paragraph that starts on the bottom of page 136 of The Good Liar and continues onto page 137.

I didn't know who this person was when I wrote this paragraph. It was someone's mother. (Probably the original version didn't identify her as Maman, as that is French for mother, and I didn't know the person was French yet.) But it was clearly a person from an older time -- a person reading a letter rather than surfing the net or yakking on a cellphone. When was the time? What was in the letter? How could I find out? I took a trip to Ireland to visit a friend who was a teacher. He had to work all day of course. One day it was too wet and cold and miserable to go in to Dublin and poke about Grafton Street. So I built up the fire in his kitchen and made a thousand cups of tea and sat down and began to write. I had decided that the mother in the story was a European woman from the middle part of the last century, and that the war was going on. I was going to write a novel set in the past. I was going to have to do (ugghhh) RESEARCH.

I wrote the first half of The Good Liar in two days, and finished up the second half when I went home. I set the story in France, as I wanted my narrator to be Catholic. (I am Catholic, and I wanted to give myself the comfort of getting SOME things right without having to research them.) The story came to me pretty easily, as I had many brothers and we were all competent liars.

But when the draft was done, I had to go to France and rent a car. I made a list of things I needed to know so that the details in my story could be true. I don't have the list any more, but I do remember a few things I was looking to see:

  • In small villages fifty years ago, did the homes have indoor or outdoor toilets?
  • What crops grew in the fields?
  • Could I find a small rural church with a front door wide enough to allow access to a tank, yet having the front step low enough that a tank could actually roll up it?
  • What are some names of French people from the Touraine district

There were many other questions, perhaps thirty or forty, but I managed to find the answer to most of them. If I couldn't find the answer, I revised that spot in the story to disguise my ignorance. I didn't want any zippers showing if zippers didn't belong! In the end, I am nearly as happy with The Good Liar as with any other story I've written. Emboldened by my success -- no reviews criticised me for getting facts or details wrong -- I went on a few years later to write an adult novel set in seventeenth-century Holland. This was a much more distant time and place for me (and in that I did make a mistake, but I won't tell you what it is).

As for The Good Liar, I am nearly as happy with the title as I am with the entire story. Everyone knows it's not good to lie. So I hope the title provokes a question in the mind of the reader: How could a liar be good? Does the author mean good AT the act of lying, or good BECAUSE of the fact of lying? Different readers might have different ideas.

I also liked the title The Good Liar because it rhymes with my name. If you say the title and the name together -- The Good Liar, Gregory Maguire -- it's a miniature poem. And I suppose, as a writer, I am a good liar. I make up things that didn't happen and try to persuade readers that they did. Or they might have. Or they might yet. If you forget the outside world for even a minute or two while you are reading The Good Liar, then you are the proof that I'm a pretty good liar myself.

Gregory Maguire