Fiction vs. reality
Published: March 8, 2002
|Novels often reflect the author's emotions or longings|
Recently, in San Antonio, I talked about my new novel with a dozen couples that included my sister, Susan, and her husband. The group knew that she was my younger sister, a history teacher with three sons and the beautiful Spanish home in which we visited together, and that I, the older sister, lived in green and mountainous Vermont with a new husband.
They had all read my novel Ella in Bloom, about a scruffy younger sister, the black sheep of the family, a single mother in a run-down duplex flooded from a recent hurricane in Old Metairie, La., and her perfect older sister, the favorite daughter, who died in a plane crash. Still, just as if they knew nothing at all of our family, they asked the same question I am always asked, at readings and book clubs, on panels and in workshops: How much of the book is from your real life?
Finding the answer difficult to explain, I replied, "The way it felt. How the world seemed."
But then, trying to be more clear, I ventured the idea that, for instance, I had used my parents' actual home in Austin, Texas, as it had been when they were alive. But my sister shook her head in disbelief: That wasn't our parents' house. Well, yes and no, I suggested. Certainly the fictional living room, where many painful scenes in Ella's story take place, with its paired green chairs, its facing flowered sofas, its matted bird prints behind nonglare glass, its egg-yolk-yellow walls, its apple-green rug, looked nothing like the bare, book-filled rooms where we grew up. Still, when Ella returns home to visit after her sister's funeral, she stands rooted to the spot in that space, unable to breathe, looking around at what feels like someone else's home, and thinks: Had I really lived there? And though the citrus decor was not ours, Ella's feeling is one I remember well. One I believe to be something we all experience, that sense that we must have been someone else when we lived in our parents' house; that we are not the same person now. In that way, I tried to explain, that home was from my life.
And so, in a way, was the older sister in the novel, though not at all like me on the surface—beautiful, blond, living an affluent life, fixing gourmet meals for her sailing club, flying off to meet her lover. And yet, and yet, when she, Terrell, in a flashback scene, tells Ella that she has read an article about a botanist who spent 30 years working on a list of imperiled plants, she cries out that she would have given every single thing she owned "to have spent 30 years of my life working on one single thing." And this longing for a lifetime commitment surely is mine. Her anguish a glimpse, perhaps, at how my own life might have turned out if I had remained the good, dutiful daughter, if I had not had my writing to rescue me.
There is a man in the book, called Red, a man who had been a liberal in high school, an idealist. Who, in the novel, finally leaves his lucrative law practice and goes back to the passions of his youth. That could have been an echo of a young man I used to know, someone who did not throw over his successes or go back to his early dreams. And so Ella's joy, when she finds Red again after so long, is also in part mine.
A story can also be true for the writer when it fulfills a wish. Ella has raised a remarkable daughter, Birdie, age 14, a talented cello player with a core of goodness and loud opinions. She is also plump, has hairy legs, an unmanageable mass of hair and no interest in a boyfriend.
Speaking to a group of extremely well-read, well-dressed, jeweled and coifed women at a literary luncheon in Coral Gables, Fla., I got a question about Birdie. "How come," someone asked, "since Ella didn't have good mothering herself, she could raise a wonderful daughter like Birdie?" My answer, "Because she left the girl alone."
And I could see by their smiles that every person in the room knew that she could never have reared such a child without fretting about her unshaved legs, her unruly hair, her excess weight, her smart mouth, any more than I could have. Yet I'm sure they, as well as I, longed to have grown up with no one ever, not once, commenting on their appearance or attitude. Just as they must also wish that we could give that gift to our own children, the gift of acceptance that Ella gave to the 14-year-old cellist in the baggy Amish-style dress.
Sometimes, talking about what is true in fiction, writers groups ask: If the people and plot of the book don't come from your own life, then where do they come from? And my answer is always: Read nonfiction. I believe that reading real voices telling about real events can suggest, in some stray phrase or scrap of narrative, a fictional world that our own emotions can inhabit.
In Uphill Walkers, for example, a moving memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Madeleine Blais about her girlhood as one of six Catholic children in a daddy-less household, the author reflects near the end: "I have long nursed the secret suspicion that my true nature was to be an adventurer, but circumstances replaced my original personality with one that is entirely different." How could any reader, herself once a rebel, now a responsible adult, fail to respond? And for someone, this statement might become the catalyst for a fictional lifetime.
Even the most scholarly of books can surprise with unsuspected scenes. Reading a riveting collection of the greatest closing arguments in modern law, called Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, written by three California attorneys, I came upon an account of Clara Shortridge Foltz, who, against tremendous difficulties, became the first woman lawyer in California, in 1878. What a glimpse of possible drama I discovered contained in a single line: "Refusing to adhere to social customs, she sued a restaurant after she and her daughter were refused service because they had not been escorted by a man." And what a compelling fiction that could inspire in someone whose own life provided the right mix of anger and ambition.
That night in San Antonio, after the book club had talked about Ella and Terrell, who were not my sister and me, and their parents, and about the man named Red whom both sisters had loved, and the remarkable girl named Birdie, and after they had had wine and dessert, they came back full circle to the original question: So, what in the book is from real life?
This time, comfortable they would understand, I told the truth, "Everything and nothing." #