Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of the detective Sherlock Holmes, was often asked by readers to solve their own real-life mysteries. He couldn’t respond to their cries for help, though, because unlike Holmes, Conan Doyle was famously gullible. His most embarrassing gaffe was the Cottingley Fairies, a hoax perpetrated by two girls who took photographs of themselves next to cardboard likenesses of fairies and gnomes and represented the results as real meetings with fanciful beings. Conan Doyle embraced the photos as proof of other beings and was roundly denounced for it, but I find myself entirely sympathetic to him.
As authors, we’re always asking ourselves “what if?” What if there were a man with a mind like a computer who could solve even the most bizarre crimes? What if there were life on other worlds? What if I were another person with another life, thrown into difficulty and danger? Our ability to sympathize, to imagine, to create the reality we wish to see is at the heart of our gift, and I think that Conan Doyle wasn’t necessarily being gullible, but was opening his mind to the possibility that fairies could exist in the same world that he did.
I find myself opening up to possibility all the time. Back when I lived in San Jose, I would drive down Quito Drive, which had long stretches of orchards, and for months I saw a sign that read “Mary Ferguson Offered” outside a house situated in the middle of a grove of fruit trees. For months, I wondered who Mary Ferguson might be, and what she might have offered to the maker of the sign. Whatever it was, it was remarkable enough for the sign maker to want to publicize the event. It was only after I’d seen the sign for at least six months that someone pointed out that it actually read “Massey Ferguson Offered,” meaning that the owner of the house was getting rid of a tractor. It was a letdown.
I’ve seen the Sydney Opera House being carted down the highway on the back of a flatbed truck, I’ve seen a dead cat in the gutter that maintained bodily integrity for nearly a year, I’ve seen a skyshark. And none of those things is out of the realm of the possible in the world I live in. Just today, my neighbors were vivisecting a hippopotamus.
What is the truth of the things I’ve seen? It’s what it appears to be, because I accept what my mind tells me without question. If I see a foot-high man wearing a brilliant-blue vest and black trousers walking down the street toward me, I believe it. If I am looking at it, obviously, it’s possible, right? And, to tell you the truth, it’s kind of a let down to realize that it’s just one of the neighbor’s peacocks walking along the road toward me. The truth is usually less interesting than what my mind invents.
If you’ve ever read the book The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, you know that it’s about a boy who drifts in a lifeboat on the Pacific for 227 days with a Bengal tiger as his only companion (once the tiger has eaten the orangutan and the zebra that started the journey with them). At one point in the story, a pair of Japanese insurance agents question him. He tells them his story, but he also tells them a different story where, instead of a tiger, he’s in the boat with the ship’s cook, a sailor with a broken leg and Pi’s mother. The strictly human story is horrifying and grisly, lacking any of the wonder and hope of the story of the boy who survived more than half a year in the company of a tiger. In the end, Pi asks the insurance men which story they like better – the one with or without the tiger.
In my world, there is room for tigers, for Sherlock Holmes, for the Cottingley fairies, and tiny men wearing brilliant blue vests and black trousers. And there’s room for you, too.