Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 27, 2015

That Person from Porlock

Occasionally someone — usually a friend being polite — has asked, “How do you know that?” referring to some bit of information that appeared in one of these blog posts. More often someone says in regard to a blog post about a particular place we’ve described, “I can’t believe how much you remember about that trip.”

While I do have a good memory for some things — especially invaluable information like television theme song lyrics from the 1960s — a great deal of the detailed information in these articles isn’t from memory: I research it. Almost invariably, when I rely on my memory, I’m wrong, or at least not entirely correct. The blog topics begin as memories or ideas — like the derivation of a word or the words of a poem — but when I check, I often find I don’t remember it accurately. To the extent time and energy permit, I research the information before putting it in an article. For language and literature, down come the books as well as the dictionary and the AP Style Guide. For travel there are photos, notes we made, maps, brochures and even menus we collected. Having an extremely smart and detail-oriented editor — The Counselor — in the office down the hall helps, too. And, there’s always the Web, although one has to be careful about the reliability of some sources.

James Joyce famously said, “Wipe your glosses with what you know,” and we like to think Under Western Skies follows that admonition to the best of our ability.

I started thinking about this aspect of authorship while reading one of the always-entertaining books in the “44 Scotland Street” series by Alexander McCall Smith. McCall Smith populates his books with a number of characters who are well-versed in literature, art and history, especially those of Scotland. We can assume that McCall Smith, himself a Scot, knows a great deal of the information his characters produce, but it’s also reasonable to assume that he — and most authors — still have to pull out numerous dusty volumes, consult the dictionary or maps or search the Web to validate what he’s put in the book. Of course, a successful author with a publishing contract probably can rely on some help from fact checkers at the publisher. Ah, what a luxury that would be.

The specific item that struck me, though, was something McCall Smith clearly remembered. One of his characters made reference to not wishing to be a “person from Porlock.”

“What in heck (or whom),” I wondered, “Is a ‘person from Porlock’?” I looked it up. It turns out that it’s a fact I may once have encountered in the dim past, but it didn’t stick in memory, no doubt crowded out by the lyrics of the second stanza to the theme song from “Maverick.” Many of you will know that Samuel Taylor Coleridge purportedly wrote his poem, “Kublai Khan” upon awakening from a vivid dream in which the entire poem had come to him, complete. According to Coleridge, he was in the midst of writing down the verses before they slipped out of his memory when he was interrupted by a visitor, and lost the ability to recall the remaining lines. That individual, Coleridge said, was “A person from Porlock” (a village in Somerset, England). Therefore, in the book, McCall Smith’s character avoids interrupting someone who’s speaking, so that they don’t derail the course of the conversation.

Was I supposed to remember that person from Porlock from all those years ago when I studied “Kubla Khan” in college? I didn’t. Mr. McCall Smith did, and it became one more of the thousands of tiny details an author relies upon to give life to characters. Good authors, I believe, know a lot, or they can’t create situations and people who inhabit interesting stories that come to life.

Do you have a favorite author (fiction, nonfiction, memoir, any form) whose inclusion of fact and detail you particularly enjoy? Leave us a comment.

© 2015 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. Oui! I do. It’s Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a series of vignettes of the author’s time in Paris as a young man in the 1920s. The book actually combines all of the elements you mention: fiction, nonfiction, memoir, although it reads as though it were a factual autobiography.

    My favorite chapter is the first one: A Good Café on the Boulevard St. Michel. As one who has spent a fair amount of time in Paris, and who has a few times ambled along the “Boul’ Mich,” as the street is sometimes called, I have a pretty good idea where that café is that Hemingway describes. When I read AMF, as I have many times, the opening chapter brings Paris to life for me, and I enjoy seeing myself in that café. (That said, I have never written a publishable short story — as Hem did in that café — or — as he also did while writing — scarfed down half a dozen oysters washed down with white wine at said café. 🙂 ) A votre santé!

    Like


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