Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Should Fiction Be Fictional?

During a graduate school fiction-writing workshop, while discussing a story—a very good one, written by my fellow MFA candidate—our instructor, Rick DeMarinis, suggested she submit it and even offered the title of a journal he believed suitable, given that her protagonist was a female Hungarian immigrant.

This was a grad student’s dream. Rick had published many novels, written a textbook, had stories placed in the Paris Review. (Coincidentally, this meant there was hope for the rest of us!) Rick Almighty was telling her he believed her story was good enough for publication. Usually, he suggested how we might fix our stories, not that they were ready for publication. We looked at her with jealous glares.

Then she shocked us.

She told Rick she didn’t know if she would submit the story, explaining that it was “based on” her mother’s life. Rick’s answer: Nothing is entirely fictional.

So where does the line between fiction and non-fiction blur? This question has been given a lot of play in the wake of the A Million Little Pieces scandal, and for authors of memoirs, this question is truly problematic. Is it also problematic for fiction writers? I don’t think it should be. I tell students that no character is entirely fictional. Every one you come up with has components of real people with whom you interacted in some way. Some writers believe everything and everyone is fair game.

At Malice Domestic a few years ago, I was having a drink with some writers and I told a story (it’s what we do, after all) about my grandfather: He was widowed at age 81 and got remarried to a woman whose financial situation far exceeded his; he worked in a textile mill most of his life. When the newlyweds went to Florida, Gramps’ new son-in-law lent him a car. Gramps called us to say he was driving a “convertible Ford Escort.” My father said, “George, Ford doesn’t make convertible Escorts.” Two weeks later, when Dad went to Florida to visit, he called to report, “Your grandfather is driving an $80,000 Mercedes. Thinks it’s an Escort.” The fellow writers loved the story, I think, because it perfectly characterized my unassuming late grandfather. One woman put her drink down and asked, “May I use that in my next book?” I said sure.

So what’s off limits, and what’s fair game? I guess it depends on the writer. We all have families that are novels waiting to be written and family members who truly are “characters.” I’ve named characters after friends (and even had one of them shot; for that, I received a good-natured phone call); anyone who follows the Jack Austin series and knew my late father knows who Jack Austin’s dad is based on; and Jack’s baby, Darcy, says things I could only get from real babies—namely my own, Delaney and Audrey. “Am I have to eat that monster?” Darcy asks when she sees a boiled lobster placed before her father. Audrey was 2 when she said it.

Does my family offer stories waiting to be written? Hell, doesn’t yours? But in the end, we’re not writing biographies. Research for a new book led me to ride with border patrol agents for maybe 12 hours. I gathered a ton of information, which I added, where necessary, in my novel. In the end, though, the reality this information adds doesn’t make or break the book. The story’s success lies in something far beyond the details. Halfway through the novel, a character did something totally unexpected, made a seemingly insignificant realization upon discovering an earring. This character’s discovery moved—and I would say made—the novel. It was nothing more than a character coming alive on the page, but it couldn’t have happened if that character had been based entirely on someone I knew.

So in the end, maybe you get a concept or a character trait from someone you know or once met. But beyond those things, if the story is to come alive, fiction really is—and must be—fiction. Because although truth maybe stranger than fiction, it’s never quite as good.