The Truth Behind Fiction
When my first novel, SHELTER ME, came out, people often asked if it was autobiographical. “No,” I’d reply. “It’s pure fiction.” Sometimes this question came from people who actually know me—even a few who’ve met my very much alive husband. I found that a little surprising since the story is premised on the main character’s husband being dead by page one.
I can’t imagine writing a memoir—happily, my life isn’t nearly exciting and/or horrific enough. But readers often want to know a writer’s connection to a fictional story. Had someone very close to me died? Do I have people in my life like the characters in the book? Is the main character like me? I can’t answer yes to any of these.
Readers also ask if my characters are based on real people. They’re not. It’s much more fun to invent a character than to be limited to the boundaries of a live person. Also it seems like a great way to get yourself into some interpersonal hot water. You can’t write authentic characters if you show only their good sides, but their true life counterparts would rightly hate you if you revealed their less-attractive traits. I do occasionally borrow little incidents, phrases and mannerisms. For instance my son once wore goggles for no apparent reason, as Dylan does in SHELTER ME. Other than that I generally rely on my wayward imagination.
And yet …
There’s a way in which all the characters are vaguely autobiographical. As a writer, I have to be inside the “head” (as it were) of each of my characters, and those mindsets make sense to me in a fairly personal way. How would I—as character X—feel if … fill in the blank? It’s a lot like method acting.
Also, writers write about what interests them. I cooked up a story about a recent widow because of a long-standing worry that something would happen to my own husband. Then I wrote about a woman going through an adult version of middle school, while helping her daughter negotiate real middle school, because middle school was miserable for me. Also I’m fascinated by how adults have to work out identity issues from time to time even though we think we’re “grown up.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay once famously said, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.” Fiction writers may not be recounting factual events, but we often reveal something of ourselves simply by virtue of the stories we choose to tell and the characters we create to tell them.
I guess my “pure fiction” isn’t quite so pure after all.