Thursday, January 22, 2009

Separating Fact from Fiction

So one of the most frequent questions I get when I call into book clubs is "How much of this book is taken from your own life?" I got the same question for The Department as well, which is sort of funny because the protagonists are wildly different. But I guess there's a tendency (and I do this too) to look at the author's photo on the dust jacket and somehow insert him/her into the story. It's really interesting to be on the other side of the coin (jacket?) now though because this question always amuses me a little (not in a bad way): like people don't understand that what we do is write fiction, as in, we actually do really make this stuff up! :)

I know that we've discussed just how much of yourself you should put into your novels in the past, and by that I mean, I think if your plots/characters are too similar to you, you can often get stuck when it comes time to be creative, but in thinking about it (as I do when I'm asked this question about how much the plot line echoes my life), I guess there is a very fine line to walk. It's funny, actually, because Jillian, my protag in TOML, is actually nothing like me. I really didn't relate to her circumstances or her problems, and yet, I was able to give her her own voice, her own world totally outside of mine. I think what was important here was that on some level, I emotionally connected with her situation. I mean, like most women, of course I've had an occasional "what if," and that shared spark of a moment was enough for me to bring her to life. That readers are convinced that she is me (or vice versa) should, I guess, be a compliment, no?

The same thing happened with The Department. I actually get emails from people who think that Natalie's story was mine, and that the book was actually a memoir. Again, there were elements of Natalie's life that I related to - for example, her quest to be in touch with her exes, as I'm happy to say that I've kept in touch and am friends with many of mine and wish them all the happiness in the world - but obviously, I'm fortunate enough to never have had cancer, nor been in many of the situations that Natalie found herself in. But yes, on some emotional level, I clicked with her.

I dunno - it's just a funny thing. I guess that's really what I'm musing about - not that any of you might care! But do you guys do this? Put the author in the plot? (And as I said, I do it myself, but I've gotten better at it now that I realize that, indeed, this is a work of imagination!)


Heather Johnson Durocher said...

Hey Allison - I'm definitely guilty of inserting the author into the plot, particularly if I'm completely convinced of the character's personality/development/evolution. It leaves me to wonder if the author went through something similar, or whether she knew someone who did. I agree, this is a good thing - having readers wonder -- b/c it demonstrates you've thoroughly explored this character and brought him/her to life...but I get what you're saying, too, that it is a work of imagination.

Jenna said...

I think the most successful books are the ones where you can "feel" the author on the page. When an author has done an impressive job of emoting the reader connects with the character and story and inevitably the author and thus cannot help but believe the author must have experienced the exact same thing themselves.

Take Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, I read somewhere that people were always asking if he himself was a hermaphrodite...I wondered for a second or two as well because he does an excellent job of putting the reader in the shoes of Calli.

With that said, I've read both of your books but it was only with ToML that I felt like "you" the author were on those pages (this sounds so hokey because I don't even know you but I hope you catch my drift :) ).

I think it's because, with ToML Jillian's emotions and thoughts on motherhood and what-ifs are so spot on that's it is very hard to believe it is all "made up". But that's what a good author can do.

And don't you think it's a good thing? Because of the emotions we felt on the pages many of us connected big time with Jillian and ToML and I personally think that is what made it such a big success.

Interesting topic...great post!

Trish Ryan said...

I had the opposite experience recently...I read a book thinking it was fiction because the main character was so ridiculously outrageous. I was stunned when I flipped back to read the author bio to learn that this was her first memoir.

But you're right--in fiction, if the author is in the same age range as the characters in the book, it's pretty easy to think that some of it must be real. Which is kind of silly, now that I think about it. Most of us have far bigger imaginations than that :)

LarramieG said...

I usually never imagine the author as the MC of the novel however -- when you kept us guessing at the outcome of ToML -- I stopped approximately 25 pages to the end and thought, "What would Allison do?" That gave me the answer. ;)

Amy Sue Nathan said...

For me it's a combination of flattering and frustrating. It's flattering when someone takes your writing to heart. To date all I've published is non-fiction -- so when I started writing fiction it was natural for a few of my beta readers to assume it was true. I had to stop using readers who knew me well, and outside of writing.

One friend asked about my book -- and I gave her a snapshot -- a scenario. She said, "Oh I can so see so-and-so doing that." I just nodded because it was nothing that so-and-so would do because it isn't about so-and-so.

In a way, it's amusing. Because if they see me in between the lines, some are also going to see themselves - and I truly "made up" my characters.

Karen Dietrich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Dietrich said...

Alice Sebold talked about this in an interview I heard on Fresh Air (love that show). She said when she first began writing The Lovely Bones, she realized that she was using the main character's rape experience as an outlet to tell her own rape story. For this reason, she stopped writing the novel and wrote her memoir first instead.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Interesting topic! I'm writing a novel that is women's humor/fiction loosely based on my life. Some of it is true memoir, and some of it is completely made up. My mc is more forthright than me - unafraid to speak her mind. I suppose she's a more powerful version of me. Then again, she's vulnerable and can be a total bitch. (Hmm, I wonder where those traits come from?) ;)

And, yes, when I read a book I often think the author's personality is deeply intertwined with the mc.

Anonymous said...

I'm writing a young adult novel that is an amalgamation of my two daughters' lives and what I went through when I was a teen. I may have started the story with real people in mind but as I keep writing, these characters start to take on a life of their own. (I used to go nuts when authors would say this happened, but now that I'm writing fiction, I get it.)

I might add back in little bits and pieces of things that really happened in my life, but with a twist, just to keep things real--like when my husband was suffering from an appendicitis while we were on a road trip and he was convinced he just had an upset stomach (the main feels no pain). I used that example, changed up a bit, to show a character with a high pain tolerance.


Unknown said...

I have only published a non-fiction book and it was about my experiences building a house so yes, you can put my face on that book. The characters in the fiction I'm writing now have some of my qualities but that tends to get boring if you see yourself popping up everywhere so I put in qualities and characters that surprise me, that anger me and people whom I want to be like but am not. Writing is a way for me to be that fashion designer I never got to be, that archeologist, that history teacher and that astronomer. I'm a writer but when I write it means I can be whatever I want to be and whomever I want to be.