A gravestone of a real great-great aunt at the real Butcher Hill Cemetery
There were cupcakes, pink tissue paper flowers bigger than my head, cupcakes, a sunny backyard full of people I love, and cupcakes. It was a family party – a birthday bash for one of my nieces.
Eventually, the conversation turned to the book I wrote that had been published exactly one week earlier. My sister-in-law, who hadn’t read a word of the novel yet, was not quite kidding when she asked me, “So, which character am I?”
I could answer with confidence. “None of them. None of the characters in the book is anyone here.” I glanced around the yard to make sure it was true. It was. None of the real people at this particular gathering cast any shadow on my fiction (except, I recall on rereading this, a few of my little sons).
“Doesn’t matter. When I’m reading it I’ll think one of them’s me anyway,” my sister-in-law warned, because she’s funny and she’s self-aware enough to know how hard it is not to see ourselves in everything.
The conversation jostled my latent social science senses awake. What would I find if I did a good old “content analysis” of my novel, chapter by chapter, looking for traces of real life?
Here’s what I found. The chapters of my book roughly fell into three categories of reality/unreality:
- Chapters almost completely ripped from real life: 7 out of 23
This proportion is smaller than I feared. These are the chapters where a few identifying features are changed, the sequence of events is streamlined, but most of the action and reaction unfold almost exactly like events from my personal and family histories.
2. Chapters I Made Up Almost Completely — Almost: 6 out of 23
Hey, there’s real fiction in here! What a relief! I was gratified when my mum’s BFF wanted to know who in our real lives a certain character from the book was and I could answer with a resounding, “He’s no one! I made him up!”
3. Chapters Made from Conglomerations of Fictional and Real Elements: 10 out of 23
Not surprisingly, this mixed category is the largest one. What’s odd about these chapters is that it’s the reality in them that strains the hardest against plausibility. If a reader ever looks up from the book and says, “Nah, I can’t buy that” he’s probably rejecting something I lifted from real life and then toned down with fiction to make it less jarring. An old lady who sleeps on a saw bench? No way. A cemetery called Butcher Hill? That’s too much. An exhumation? Get right out, that never really happens. It does. It did. As they say, I can’t make this stuff up. Maybe I don’t have the guts.
Since before I was born, it’s been a Beatles cliché that it’s hard for artists to come up with anything new. The world is old and full of people and stories. Part of the art-imitates-life problem is genuinely accidental, especially for people from large families like mine. The more people a writer knows with the intimacy of family, the more difficult it is for her to avoid treading on real life situations in her work.
For instance, I have an unpublished novel currently circulating with my agent about a group of five sisters. Not coincidentally, I am one of five sisters. When it came to writing sisterhood, a group of five was the size that made the most sense to me. I make no apologies for that. However, I started to squirm when I saw that, in order to advance the plot, I needed one of the sisters to have a professional medical background. Fine. But in my real sister-group, one of us works as a nursing instructor. Medicine is full of women and this alone could be dismissed as chance. But then the story needed one of the sisters to have a husband who’s adopted. One of my brothers-in-law fits this description. Another sister in the novel needed access to the justice system. That’s me. And the plot was going nowhere without a sister with lots of money – enter another fact from one of my sisters’ lives. I finished the novel, looked at all the parallels, and wondered what really happened. Did the plot arise first and demand all these real life details or did real life tumble around in my imagination until it formed into the plot? And was the same kind of thing happening in my published novel?
There’s a literary movement hatching out of this chicken-and-egg fiction conundrum. It questions whether recounting real life is actually a problem. It’s been called “post-fiction” and refers to writing that obscures boundaries between fiction and fact. As critic Michael H. Miller of New York Observer explains,
This writing represents a chiasmus between the real and the made-up, blurring the two into nonrecognition, confronting the reader with all those issues one is trained by the Western academy not to look for: namely, the author herself, hiding behind the words.
Recently, there’s been a spell of writers – like Sheila Heti and Tao Lin – producing novels with real people from their lives cast as characters. Those real people include themselves. Sometimes, not even the names are changed. These narratives have been called tedious by some critics. They state the obvious, deal in the mundane, they can be repetitive. Some readers dislike them. Some think they’re brilliant.
Whatever they are, they make me feel a little more confident in my own post-fiction inclinations. I’m so comfortable with it I’ve made this digital “scrapbook” where I collect images, quotations, and music that inspired or emulate my book. In true post-fiction style, I borrowed the idea from fellow writer, Rebecca Campbell. You can see it here:
Readers might be getting used to seeing the author standing in front of the lens, in the foreground. Maybe I’m cheating them if they don’t see me. And I’m hard not to recognize. Like me, the main female character in my novel is a mother of a group of sons, raising them under the influence of her solid marriage and her rather jaunty death fixation. She goes where I’ve gone and seen much of what I’ve seen. We have matching root canals in one of our teeth. We both said the same thing to our husbands when we saw they’d cut their throats shaving the morning before we married them. But even after all this, she is not really me. The very act of creating her made her different from me. She’s a story I tell.
And in the same way, regardless of any likenesses, I promise, none of the characters in my book is you.