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Disasters in Fiction and Real Life

I was watching the first episode of "Downton Abbey", a follow-up to re-watching "Gosford Park", a film I didn't like when it first came out and still find a little too cerebral. "Downton Abbey", of course, is everything but cerebral. Anyway, the very first scene is the tapping of the telegraph, which we discover shortly is the arrival of a telegram announcing the loss of the titled heirs to the Abbey who went down on the Titanic. As I was watching, I got to thinking about how the story starts with the disaster, which sets up the entire series, so a brilliant choice from a writer's perspective. But then, I was reminded that my own life was set on a different path by another disaster, almost a century later, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, shown at its launch in the photograph below, along with the launch of the Titanic. The loss of Challenger, meant that the space program was put on hold, and the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope also was frozen. That was the year I finished my doctorate, and all the jobs in astronomy disappeared as a result. So instead of leaving Quebec City to pursue a career in astronomy, and leaving the woman I had been courting, I ended up staying in Quebec and marrying her. My life would have been dramatically different if the space shuttle hadn't blown up.

So these dramatic events don't just happen in fiction, although, of course, I have written no memoire about my own life, which might choose such a moment to begin. But it is interesting to reflect on the importance that attaches to where one begins telling a story, that is, when one situates the story's beginnings, and also the relationship between such writing choices and the events that occur in one's own life. I have no radically new conclusions to propose, here, just a kind of note to myself that these are important questions for a writer to hold in one's mind. This is especially so with my two most recent efforts, the still unfinished novel called "These White Shadows", which mixes autobiography with fiction, and the just completed novel called "River of Sighs", which is fiction but which tells a story I need to tell for my own reasons. The latter story is not autobiographical per se, but like all writing, in incorporates aspects of my life in the story.


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