“And now that she was doing something difficult
and familiar and never quite predictable,
namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again,
the same sense of complexity and control
that the alethiometer gave her.”
—Phillip Pullman The Golden Compass
John Green, whose latest book, An Abundance of Katherines, is out this week is stopping by my blog today to be
interrogated interviewed by me about lying, on account of how he is somewhat partial to spouting the tall ones.
John’s partialness is by no means unique amongst writers. (Truman Capote, anyone?) In the interview we ponder the connection between the telling of lies and the writing of stories. Do you have to be a good liar to be a good storyteller?
Justine: So, John, were you always a liar?
John: Presumably there was a time before I could talk when I was honest, but I’ve been a liar since at least the age of four, when I convinced my preschool teacher my home had been burglarized, and that the burglars had stolen our television. How about you?
Justine: My memories are hazy, but I do remember trying to convince my younger sister that she was adopted, but even though she was very little at the time she wasn’t buying it—we look a lot like each other.
Do you think that lying and being a writer go together?
John: One time I was on a panel with Markus Zusak, and I made some joke about how when I was a kid I figured that the only things I was good at were sitting and telling lies, so I decided to become a writer. And then someone was blogging about this event later and said something like, “Shame on John Green for claiming that fiction writing is lying.” Shame on me? Am I wrong? Is it NOT lying?
Justine: I think so. The kind of creativity you need to get away with an elaborate lie is very close to what you need for writing fiction. But at the same time if a book’s labelled as being fiction then it’s not actually lying. I can see the point, just not why people get so upset about it.
Why do you think people get hot under the collar about calling fiction writing lying?
John: I have no idea. People can be very persnickety about what writing is, and how to do it, and what writing ought to do.
I will acknowledge that the mere ability to lie well is not the same thing as being able to write good fiction, but they are surely related talents.
Justine: Indeed. I’ve heard people from certain religious backgrounds say they weren’t allowed to read novels on the grounds that they are nothing but a pack of lies. Jane Austen makes reference to the supposed moral laxity of novels in her books. Maybe people are still angry that used to happen?
Or perhaps it’s because some people agree that lying is a terrible sin and believe that liars can’t be trusted. If you lie, they believe, you’ll also cheat and steal and murder.
But I think there’s a big difference between kinds of lies. Lying for gain or to cheat are bad, bad, bad things. But lots of lies are completely necessary and good. If people are coming to kill your family and friends and you know where they are hidden, saying you don’t know is the only honourable, good thing you can do. Telling the truth in that situation would be reprehensible.
Also sometimes telling someone the truth can really, really hurt them. I once told a friend that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She hated me for it and we’re still not friends. I have never done that again. There are some things people don’t need to know or need to find out for themselves.
Is there anyone you would never lie to?
John: The true answer is no, although I’d like to say yes. I very rarely lie to my wife, and never about issues of substance. But I’m with you on the nobility of some lies. I am WILLING to lie to anyone, if the situation arises. I’ve always felt that lying can be perfectly noble: Say, for instance, that Sarah (my wife) got into a duel, and her opponent cut off her nose (as happened to the astronomer Tycho Brahe). Okay, so if a half-conscious and noseless Sarah said to me, “Am I losing a lot of blood?” And I would say, “No,” because I’d want her to stay calm and wait for help to arrive. That’s an ethical lie, I think.
Justine: I’m adding that to my list of folks it’s okay to lie to: semi-conscious, noseless people. I don’t lie to Scott or my parents or sister. Well, not unless I confess instantly in a ha-ha tricked-you way.
Is there anything you would never lie about?
John: Oddly, I don’t think I would ever lie about my lying. Does that make sense? Like, I am perfectly happy to answer these questions honestly. I don’t think we, as liars, should be ashamed. There are shameful lies, certainly, but I don’t think the enterprise is in and of itself bad. Lying is like the Force: It can be used for good or evil.
Justine: Absolutely! I don’t lie for gain. I could never be a confidence trickster because I find parting fools from their money deeply wrong. We’re all of us foolish about something, so we can all be tricked. The conman believes that they’re better than everyone else. They’re grifters; we exist only to be their marks. That’s psycho thinking.
Did you make a distinction between the different kinds of lies you tell? (I have many categories for different kinds of lies.)
John: Oh, yeah. What are your categories?
Justine: Reinventing-Yourself lies, Making-a-Better-Story lies, White lies, Getting-Out-of-Trouble lies, Exaggeration.
When I was young Reinventing-Myself lies were my favourites. I moved around a lot as a kid, so every time I was the new kid in school I had a new opportunity to reinvent myself and my family. A lot of the lies were wish-fulfillment lies. I would say that I was on the verge of selling a novel, that I’d been asked to become a model/actor/singer/trapeze artist/DJ but turned them down because it seemed like too much work. Stuff like that. My parents weren’t too worried about it cause the lies were mostly so outrageous no one believed them for long. (They were a bit miffed though when I said they’d met fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War on account of they’re not nearly old enough to have done it. Not really born enough, either.)
John: Reinventing-Myself lies were also very popular with me, and I still occasionally find myself telling a Reinventing-Myself lie when I feel nervous or uncomfortable. A few years ago, for instance, I was having dinner with a woman I’d just started dating, and before I could even stop myself, I started talking about the two weeks I’d spent in Uzbekistan just after graduating from college. In fact, I’ve never even been to England, let alone Uzbekistan. To me, the Reinventing Myself lie is the surest sign of adolescence and/or immaturity.
Justine: Also of boredom. Me and my sister being on the run from an evil cult of nuns who killed our family and ate our family cat and now being in witness protection with our fake parents was way more exciting than my actual life. But now I think my actual life does not need to be improved by adding evil nun cults.
I also used to tell a lot of Making-a-Better-Story lies. When retelling a story I smooth things, leave the boring bits out, add more interesting bits in order to make the story more story-like. Real life is irritatingly messy and usually does not translate well into a story unless you bend things.
John: I am also quite fond of the Making-Better-Story lie. I’m sure that all of my stories contain them, although I’ve been telling some of those stories so long I don’t even know what’s false memory and what isn’t. The narrator of The Great Gatsby notwithstanding, very honest people rarely tell good stories, in my experience.
Justine: My next category is White lies. Even though I don’t lie nearly as much now as I did as a kid, I still sometimes tell social lies to people I don’t know that well. “Your dress is beautiful.” “I loved your book.” “Sorry we couldn’t make it to your party—we were both a bit under the weather.” Etc. etc.
John: Yeah. With my closest friends, the white lie is unnecessary, because I can just say something like, “I want to go home now,” and that’s fine. But with acquaintances, the white lie is a great blessing.
Justine: Getting-Out-of-Trouble lies are the kind I always felt the guiltiest about. I usually wound up confessing to my misdeeds later.
John: I rarely tell these anymore, because I’ve become such a boring homebody that on those rare occasions when I get myself into trouble, I sort of enjoy it.
Justine: Me neither. When I was a kid, getting in trouble was the worst thing in the world. I’m completely inured to it now and will own my bad deeds. Mostly because I try hard not to commit any.
Exaggeration’s the last kind of lie on my list. Most of my lies are of the poetic kind, embellishing stuff to make it cooler variety. The ceilings were twenty metres high! The walls painted such an intense gold your eyes watered just looking at it! Though it prolly belongs in the Making-Better-Story category.
John: Yes, I’m also given over to these.
Justine: Do you have any categories of your own?
John: Well, I would add the Compassionate Lie (outlined above, in the example where Sarah gets her nose cut off during a duel). I’m a big fan of the Compassionate Lie, although it can be a bit of a slippery slope. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re telling a Compassionate Lie when you’re really just telling a regular old self-interested lie. Here’s an example: Say I killed your pet llama by accident. Now, I can tell you that your pet llama ran away, or that it went to go live on a farm. And that’s kind of a compassionate lie. But mostly, I just don’t want you to be mad at me about killing your llama.
Justine: Oh, yes. I used to tell people what I thought they wanted to hear when they asked me if they looked okay. But now if there’s something correctably wrong I will tell them: “Your tag’s sticking up.” ‘There’s schmutz on your face.” “Your pimple is glowing red.”
John: I’d also say that for me, Telling-Better-Stories lies and Reinventing-Myself lies are subcategories of Trying-to-Make-People-Like-Me lies. Basically, all of my lies were Trying-to-Make-People-Like-Me lies.
Justine: Once again we are in complete agreement.
Do you lie as much now as when you were kid?
John: Oh God, no. It would be impossible to lie as much now as when I was a kid. When I was younger, I was able to devote all of my resources to lying. Entire days could be spent on the construction and telling of lies. Now I have to, like, do the dishes and go to the grocery store. But also, as I get older, I feel less compelled to lie. Partly, this is because I’m happier. I have friends now who like me, which is most of what I wanted to get out of lying. The Trying-to-Make-People-Like-Me lie just doesn’t appeal to me like it used to. I’ve discovered, belatedly, that pretending to have spent two weeks in Uzbekistan does not actually make people like you.
Justine: Me neither. For much the same reasons. In fact I don’t tell anything other than white lies and exaggerations these days. Of course I’m stuck with the legacy of my lying past. No one in my family believes a word I say. I am the family’s unreliable witness and even though I’m almost entirely lie-free and have been for years—they will always doubt me. That’s my warning to the kids who read this: The tale of the Boy Who Cried Wolf is absolutely true.
Do you have that reputation within your family?
John: To an extent. None of my complaints are ever taken seriously, because they’re counted upon to be exaggerations. But they’ve learned to trust my stories. Or at least they pretend they do.
Justine: Do you think part of why you lie less now is because the lying part of you gets enough exercise from writing novels?
John: That’s a good observation, and I think writing has lessened my desire to lie. I can now get immersed in a fictional world without having to deceive my friends, and you never have to feel guilty about making things up in a novel. When I’m working on a book, during those periods where I’m just working day and night, I get to spin whatever lies I want about those characters. Reinventing-Yourself lies and Exaggerations and Making-a-Better-Story lies and lies that help me get the characters out of trouble. Not all the lies go into the book, of course, but it’s fun regardless.
Justine: Yup. I got a huge kick out of some of the more elaborate stories I used to tell, the friends I invented and their stories. I get to use all those skills when I write novels but this way I don’t get in trouble for it, I don’t lose friends, and I get paid!
What’s the worst trouble you’ve ever gotten into for lying?
John: Well, my fourth grade girlfriend Julie Baskin broke up with me because of my lying, which sucked. But I think the worst consequences for lying are emotional: If you tell the wrong kind of lies, it prevents intimacy; it makes it impossible for you to be a whole person in communion with others; it poisons your relationships. That hasn’t been an issue for me in adulthood, thank God, but it’s something I think liars must always stay mindful of.
Justine: Yes, indeed, the erosion of trust is a biggie. It’s why I don’t lie to the people I care about. Or not about anything important.
Who is your favourite fictional liar? Mine’s Lyra Silvertongue from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. She is brave and courageous and true and totally understands the difference between good and bad lies. I adore her.
John: I can see the case for Lyra Silvertongue, but of course I can’t pick her because fantasy isn’t really literature. Oh, God! I’m kidding! Stop hitting me! I have to go with Huck Finn. And then maybe Jay Gatsby, but Huck Finn stands out to me as the best liar, real or fake, in all of history.
Justine: Who is your favourite real person liar?
John: Well, I’m quite fond of you. And Sarah knows how to tell a tale, certainly. Sometimes, I’ll see a flicker in her eyes when one of her stories takes a turn, and I’ll know, but even when you know, it is a sweet pleasure to watch a master work.
Justine: Yes, indeed! Watching Scott telling stories is prolly one of my favourite things in the universe. Even though I’ve heard all his stories a gazillion times he changes them depending on who he’s telling them to and what the context is. I loves it. (And, natch, I too am fond of you.)
Disclaimer: This entire conversation is, itself, a pack of lies.