From Bones to Flesh: On Writing Philosophy and Fiction
Kelly Oliver is Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of three mystery series. Her latest, High Treason at the Grand Hotel, A Fiona Figg Mystery, came out on January 5th.
After thirty years writing philosophy books—on such a broad range of topics that some scholars in my field wondered if I was writing philosophy at all—one stormy afternoon in August 2014, I decided to write a novel. I had never written a word of fiction, so the task I set myself was a bit daunting.
Fortunately, I was on sabbatical (shhhh… don’t tell Vanderbilt I spent it writing a novel). By another stroke of luck, that very weekend, there was a mystery writer’s convention in Nashville called Killer Nashville. In three days, I learned just enough to make me dangerous. The next Monday I started writing my first novel.
I joke that if it had been a sci-fi convention, I’d be writing sci-fi. Or, if it had been a romance convention, I’d be writing romance.
Six years—and eleven novels—later, I’ve learned a lot.
First, it’s never too late to try something new.
Second, if you’re a woman and you’ve got the guts to get a Ph.D. in philosophy—a field still dominated by men—then you’ve got the grit to write a novel.
Third, research is research, no matter if it is for a book on French philosophy or an historical murder mystery—except with fiction you can make stuff up so it goes a lot faster (for comparison, in thirty years writing philosophy, I’ve only authored sixteen books).
The most amazing thing I’ve learned writing fiction is that you can change an entire world with just one sentence or one phrase. It’s like a miracle. Perhaps that’s true of philosophy too, only again it happens a lot slower, like the difference between human time and geological time.
Unlike philosophy, where you get right to the point and tell your reader where you’re going from the beginning, in fiction, you meander and hide the destination for as long as possible. Still fiction allows for a certain kind of truth telling that is difficult to reach in nonfiction. Affective truth.
I was trained in phenomenology, which focuses on lived experience. Writing fiction requires creating a lived experience for the reader. Whereas phenomenology gets to the bones of lived experience, fiction fills out the flesh.
Writing fiction is also an exercise in empathy that forces you to imagine stepping into another person’s shoes, and demands taking up views that aren’t your own. You can’t create believable characters if you can’t imagine life from their point of view. Hopefully, you open up your reader to new ways of seeing the world.
In both my scholarly work and my fiction, I’ve been concerned with social issues, especially women’s issues. In fiction, you can bring those issues to life. Potentially, you connect with readers on an affective as well as intellectual level, perhaps changing the way they feel and thereby the way they think.
What I love most about writing fiction is that you can imagine a world where social justice is real.