‘To create a good story a certain flexibility with the truth is required.’ Stephen Kelman talks Man on Fire

When I first told Bibhuti Nayak – journalist, sportsman, social activist and holder of twenty world records in feats of ingenious masochism – that I wanted to write a book about him his response was, ‘Great, go ahead, write what you wish. I am with you one hundred percent.’ This was 2008, before I’d written Pigeon English. I had no credentials. I was just dreaming out loud. Had Bibhuti stopped to think about it for a moment – a man he’d never met gets in touch with him out of the blue, and threatens to write a book about him despite having no track record or demonstrable ability as a writer – he might well have gotten cold feet and withdrawn his invitation. But that’s not Bibhuti’s style. He’s a disarmingly trusting man, at least trusting of me, and it’s for this reason that I was so determined, in the writing of Man on Fire, to capture his spirit as faithfully as possible.

Man on FireWriting about people still living is fraught with perils and concern
s that don’t apply so strongly to figments of the author’s imagination. There is an obligation not just to get the details right, when those details can be verified or challenged by the subjects themselves, but also a pressure to show the subject in a sympathetic light. Luckily for me, Bibhuti is a man completely lacking in vanity – he would not hold a world record for being kicked in the testicles were this not so – and also, being a journalist by profession, is media savvy enough to understand that to create a good story a certain flexibility with the truth is required. But just how flexible I could be, given that by the time I sat down to write Bibhuti and I had become close friends, was the key question that guided my explorations of his character on the page.

Perhaps there is an analogy there for our friendship itself. Brought to my attention by a random twist of fate after seeing him being kicked in the balls by Paul Merton on TV, I now consider Bibhuti my dearest friend and most cherished confidant. The feeling is mutual. To get here required a flexibility on both our parts; a suspension of disbelief if you will. How could two men who live thousands of miles apart, whose lives are so different from each other’s in so many fundamental ways, grow so close so quickly? I suppose it was partly because it was so unexpected. Life is like that sometimes, and so are stories. What draws us to them is often what draws us to people: a sense that we are breaking new ground. I was so eager to tell Bibhuti’s story because I wanted the world to see the novelty that I see in him. He is a singular personality who has become a singular presence in my life, and there was no way I was going to share him with the world unless the world could accept him for who he is. So I told the truth wherever I could and made sure the lies were in keeping with the spirit of the man.

The proof of this experiment’s success could only come from Bibhuti’s reading of the finished novel. He read it over three days with his wife and son, who also feature. I waited in agony for his reaction. Here is an extract from his email:

My dear friend, 

I salute you with all humility for putting on paper more than everything what we expected. You lived up to my expectations. I find no word to express my happiness as you have aptly projected all. I am the happiest man now as I got complete identity in the society. All my hidden wishes are fulfilled.

With Bibhuti’s endorsement, I now feel ready to release Man on Fire into the world. Whether people like it or believe it is not my concern. I kept a promise to a friend, and I got to tell the lies and the truths I wanted to. No writer can ask more than that.

Man on Fire by Stephen Kelman was published on August 13th by Bloomsbury. We have six copies to give away on Twitter; re-tweet to win one.

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