Barry Unsworth is the English-born author of 16 novels, most recently Land of Marvels, a historical novel set in Mesopotamia on the eve of World War I. Three of his books have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, including Sacred Hunger, which is concerned with the 19th-century Atlantic slave trade and won the prestigious award in 1992.
In this recording of the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar John Hersey Memorial address, Unsworth outlines his thoughts on the nature of truth in works of fiction. On the one hand, argues Unsworth, the novelist must strive for accuracy in relating the historical facts of a period. On the other hand, “the writer of fiction should be seeking a larger truth, a purer truth.” In pursuit of this aesthetic aim, the author strives to appeal to the reader’s experience and intuition, and so may take liberties with “the categories of factual falsehood or truth.” In making his case for an “economy of truth,” Unsworth cites authors Mark Twain, Umberto Eco, and D.H. Lawrence, as well as British spy-turned-author Peter Wright.
From KWLS 2009: Historical Fiction and the Search for Truth