Fact or fiction: autobiographical novels with Édouard Louis

This episode of the Guardian Books podcast featuring Édouard Louis had me absolutely hooked.

I hadn’t heard anything about Édouard Louis before, but two things struck me about his interview. First, the eloquence and clarity with which he talks about his childhood and the impact it had. Second, the way he was able to separate his own story from the writing. Such a difficult thing to do.

Here’s more information about Louis and the context of the interview:

Édouard Louis received huge acclaim in France at the age of 21 for his debut book, The End of Eddy, an autobiographical novel about a gay child who grows up surrounded by poverty and homophobia in a post-industrial French town. Despite France’s long history of autofiction, Louis’s book sparked a hunt for the truth, with French media descending on his home town in Picardy to talk with locals and try to determine what was real.

I highly recommend you give the episode a listen. It’s not often I hear an author talk about their work and feel compelled to go and buy it. This morning, I bought The End of Eddy and can’t wait to get stuck in.

Picking the right idea for your novel

Writing on her blog for writers, Writability, Ava Jae today asked the question: where do your novel ideas come from? It’s a good question and one that writers will answer differently, I’m sure.

For me, A is for Angelica started life as a single sentence that I rather liked. Benny paints pictures with his eyes closed. That was the first line I wrote and it’s still there today, unchanged at the beginning of the second chapter.

Got to have character

But really, the idea for the novel came from its lead character and narrator, Gordon Kingdom. I love writing characters and without good ones, I don’t think any novel is going to stand up to 300-odd pages of plot, no matter how many twists and turns it brings.

In her post, Ava says a similar thing:

I am absolutely a character-based writer. Every one of my WIP ideas has started with a character, with a world and situation built around them. I find it very difficult to build a character to fit a story—instead, the story evolves from the character.

So yes, for me, it’s all about character, but I think there’s a more difficult question for novelists to answer. I think the problem is less about working out where ideas come from, and more about knowing which of those ideas are worth pursuing.

How do you know if your novel idea is any good?

I’m not sure I knew that I was on the right track until I was a good 10,000 words into Angelica. That’s a lot of time and effort to invest in a project that might not go anywhere.

If you’re currently struggling to answer this question yourself, I think there probably two tests that you can carry out.

  • Run your idea past someone you trust.
  • Consult your gut.

The first will give you an objective view on whether or not your novel idea is one that you should start to invest in. Sometimes you can think an idea is a total world-beater, only to have your bubble burst by someone who can see through its flimsy exterior and point out that, actually, it’s really rather rubbish. The important thing is to make sure that the person you ask is qualified to give you that information.

The second is about writer’s instinct. If you’re excited about an idea and you can visualise it happening, then you should at least make some initial inroads into the work. On the other hand, if you’re unsure about the idea, especially so early on, it’s probably not going to happen.

There’s a lot to be said for writing rules, routines and good practice. But if something doesn’t feel right, well, it just doesn’t feel right.

You’ll have a lot of ideas as a writer. That’s the easy bit. Picking the good ones, that’s another kettle of fish altogether.