The Atlantic

How Rudyard Kipling Turned His Guilt Into Fiction

The novelist Scott Spencer on the English author’s short story “The Gardener” and what it reveals about transforming shame into art
Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


What makes fiction writers turn to fiction? Other forms of prose storytelling—essays, memoir, journalism—offer undeniable advantages, after all: immediate high stakes, flesh-and-blood characters who come pre-made, the thrill of knowing certain events really happened. How to make sense of the fabulist’s impractical knack for wholesale invention, the impulse to depart real life’s sure footing for the uncharted waters of myth?

In a conversation for this series, the novelist Scott Spencer explained the literary appeal of making stuff up. Using Rudyard Kipling’s heartbreaking short story “The Gardener” as a guide, Spencer explored the ways fiction helps us grapple with life events too complex, challenging, or shameful to take on directly. We discussed the way imagined characters and scenarios allow authors to reckon with—and perhaps ultimately master—the messiest aspects of experience.

Last year, the novelist Alexander Chee gave readers of this series some advice: If you want to bring your characters to life, take them to a party. Spencer’s new novel, River Under the Road, is proof of concept. As it tells the story of two Hudson Valley couples through the lens of 13 gatherings—a graduation celebration, a wedding, a housewarming, a

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