I am interested in the uncertain borderline between fiction and memoir in the works of many writers. Do you find that line increasingly blurred in contemporary writing, and where do you see your work on this continuum?
—Monika Zagar, Ljubljana, Slovenia
This an interesting area of inquiry in many ways, Monika. The last twenty years or more certainly have seemed to be a flourishing era of memoir, and memoir of a different kind from what you and I first encountered as adult readers. The idea used to be that a memoir was something written near the end of life by a person who had participated in momentous events or knew significant figures who had. Those outlines have been basically obliterated. People now write memoirs at any age and on any subject. The main condition seems to be that the story emanate in a real way from lived experience, which is certainly why there have been various literary flaps when a purported memoir is revealed to be essentially fiction. But the controversy in those cases comes merely from the fact of misrepresentation. If a person were to say upfront that she has, for instance, written the imagined memoir of a girl with an eerie talent for mind reading, the only issue would be if the book were good.
I think there are many reasons why memoir has become such a sought after genre. It can be very compelling; it can be very well written. It’s also true there’s been an increasing democratization of literature, which is not really new. One of the early innovations of the novel was its expansion of literary subject matter to include far more than the lives of the powerful and privileged. Now both the novel and the memoir give us literary versions of virtually any kind of life. While some memoir writing may have more in common with reality shows and blogging than with serious literature, a lot of it has a more ambitious feel. In discussing memoir, Patricia Hampl, who writes both poetry and memoir, has talked about the personal being political. If I understand her meaning, she’s suggesting that the intersection of even a modest life with the zeitgeist of a time and place can offer not only an exploration of the self that is illuminating in its own right but a template for understanding some significant aspect of the wider world. It’s a large idea and may offer one explanation for the quick intellectual legitimization of this form of writing, not just its popularity. It’s also of interest that Hampl as one of the earlier practitioners of this new kind of memoir has her poet’s bona fides. Poetry has always been one of the most personal of the arts.
But so far, this is just background for an attempt to answer your questions about how blurred the line is between fiction and fact in contemporary writing, mine included. To talk about other writers of stories first—and let’s broaden that to storytellers—I think the line has always been fuzzy. We all know fish stories are about pumping up actual achievements. We know that comedians’ creations of stage variants of themselves have only a tangential relation to who they actually are. The very nature of storytelling depends on enhancement for effect. It’s also not uncommon for people to create composite characters or to disguise others in work they label autobiography or memoir in order to write what they consider the essential truth of a situation without infringing on the privacy of people they either want to protect or not antagonize. To write is to take liberties to one degree or another.
I don’t claim an exhaustive knowledge of contemporary literature, but I don’t think it’s at all uncommon to encounter fiction that is little more than a veiled version of someone’s life or memoir that shades away from its factual base. We should probably remember that the tools are essentially the same for both kinds of writing and we encounter the same kinds of things in both—character, scene, speech, thought, description, explanation. Conflict, reaction, development, resolution. A conventional plot might make a memoir feel contrived, yet even that might work as a framing device. Really, I suppose you could say the only certain identification of fiction and memoir is based on the author’s say-so.
Which brings me to my work and the places, as my dad used to say, where the bodies are buried. I would say I’m a writer who draws less on personal experience for my stories than many or most writers. Books like Time Stamp and Suite Harmonic are about as far from being about things I’ve done or experienced firsthand as they could possibly be. In other work, while I’ve sometimes started with autobiographical detail, it’s only a launching pad for moving into a story that is flat-out made up. It’s a truism that, unless writers are plagiarists, they have only their own minds and imaginations to process things through and, in that sense, I’m written deeply into all my work. There’s an emotional truth in it that feels familiar. And maybe some of the surprises in attitude or language are me.
But here’s the actual scoop, book by book. In Suite Harmonic I was, of course, trying to write as factual a story as I could, yet I still had to invent all sorts of specific scenes and activities and interactions. There wouldn’t be any book if I hadn’t. I’ll also confess to this. Occasionally, when I wasn’t sure how John Given would react to something, I’d say to myself, well he was my great-grandfather. Maybe I inherited a personality trait or two from him. What would I do? OK, John. Here you go.
Time Stamp, as I’ve said, could not have been further removed from my life. Yet when Will Wheelock first appeared in my mind as a character, I was consumed with the fact that nobody in power was actually doing anything to stop the Vietnam War. That was the primordial ether Will came from, that fog in my head. I wondered about men who might be in a position to make important decisions and yet shied away from them. Reeve, his wife, interested me but I don’t think we’re anything alike. And Maddie, their daughter, is far more rebellious and impulsive and adventurous than I’ve ever thought of being. She was fun to write for that reason. I did give her something from my life. My father had dementia when he was quite old. I borrowed some from the experiences I had in taking care of him to help me create her husband’s illness. And fuller disclosure. I know a very tall radiologist, who told me his wife was trying to teach their children the difference between the value of people and things. Maddie’s nephew from her first marriage–a minor character in the book–is based on him, and something the nephew says is similar to that observation.
In the Land of the Dinosaur. The place is absolutely autobiographical in these stories, including the creek and the creek road. The bar that’s so central to much of the action is the bar that was exactly two miles from our house. The liver feed Franklin Gage refers to in “At Flood Tide” is fact-based, not fiction. Some, not many, of the characters have personal and physical resemblances to people I knew. A few lines and some general situations are copied from the real world. Once when my husband was taking pictures at the county fair, somebody collared him, told him to stop, and said something to the effect that the people he was shooting already had their pictures in the post office. That made its way into “A Carnival of Animals.” I also heard somebody say there was a question of foul play after a teenager drowned, which was the impetus for all of “Anthony Martin Is Dead.” We once had a neighbor who drove his tow truck home at lunch and tapped his horn when he pulled in the driveway, much like Gabe in “Violin Song.” As far as I remember, I never heard a violin coming from that house, though I might have. There was also the story somebody told me about how his family always gathered to kill chickens once a year when he was a boy, which gave me the idea for the gathering in “The Killing,” and somewhere I heard someone talking about a truck coming to pick up turkeys at midnight in the rain and all the turkeys that were lost. That is the setting for “Turkey Run.” “The Home of the Wet T-shirt Contest” isn’t based on any actual event I knew of but such contests were in vogue at some point, though I never heard of any deer hunters skipping hunting season to go to one. I’ve been to more weddings than I can say and I certainly know the drill for the one that appears in “Faith Davenport.” There was a summer when barns were destroyed all over the county in big storms as they are in “The Battle,” and there are always flea markets and auctions like the ones in “Treasures.”
Everything in The Second Magician’s Tale is absolutely true. I’m a trained astrologer who knows some magic and makes the world an unsafe place for the men around her; every character in the book is based on an actual snake tamer or strongman or auteur, and everything else I’ve been writing about in the answers to all these questions is a 100% fabrication.
Here’s the roll call for Watching Oksana, and this is going to be another long paragraph. “The Temple of Amun” was somehow inspired by the inconclusiveness of “A Lady with a Pet Dog” by Chekhov. “Watching Oksana” exists because I was glued to the TV watching the Winter Olympics when I was sick with shingles. I got the idea for “Mother Tongue” from something I read about second languages disappearing in incidences of dementia and the fact my mother-in-law spoke only Yiddish as a child but wouldn’t tell people her father was Jewish. A friend told me once about her mother’s long secret infidelity, and I flipped that some to use in “Fields of Flanders.” I knew a man who, like Jefferson Shalli in “Moving,” first bought a condo and then a large house after his divorce and purchase of a red sports car. My son was in the Peace Corps in China, which is the setup for “Eleven Days to China.” (It, like The Second Magician’s Tale, is absolutely factual–and I do have a bridge to sell you.) “American Snapshot, 1993,” has real people in it, many of them with real names, and it plays off some real events. It’s the story that may mean most to me because of its subject matter, but it moves into a totally fictional construct. The Laura stories all have situations or events that have a real parallel in my own life—the prison grounds in “Birdman” and a handful of pictures a girl showed a group of us one day, a family trip to Europe in “Journeys in the Hidden World,” in “Floating,” a trip to see some relatives in Savannah when I was a young child, all the things that my mother left me in “Things”—but the stories themselves move from those realities entirely into fiction. As far as “Swimming” goes, it was inspired by my learning how to swim as an adult and knowing I had to use that experience in a story and knowing that it would have something to do with grief.
Two of the three novellas in Clare, Loving are based on some emotional truths in my life. The first, “Sylvie,” is really an exploration of the challenging transit mothers can face in creating a new relationship with their children when they’re grown. The last novella, “The Nuns on the Roof of St. Peter’s” is named after something one of my aunts said about Vatican City that always baffled and intrigued me. It also has a lot of autobiographical detail in the setup. I moved to Minnesota when I was ten and went to a Catholic school (it was my second, not first as it is for Clare). Some of the nuns were nice; some were genuinely scary. I was the May Queen and my dress had French seams. We lived in the same block as the school and we had a big piano in our living room. My mother wasn’t Catholic which, in that district, acted as something of scandal. I left that school and the high school that followed it with a certain amount of unearned guilt and later resentment that gets a fictional workout in “Nuns.” The third novella, “The Beautiful Ships,” is simply a story I had to invent as the bridge between the other two.
That’s the rundown, and I’ve never done that before. All things considered, though I always like a real world template to fit work into, when it comes to actual characters and their experiences, I like inventing not copying from my life or digging into it when I’m writing. On a sliding scale of pure fiction to memoir that is based on telling the actual story of a lived life, for all my work—one to ten—the highest I think I could possibly go is two or two and a half. I suspect very few writers could go lower.