How much of what a novelist writes is autobiographical? Conversely, if a non-fiction writer changes the names and circumstantial detail in a true story, is it permissible to pass the resulting tale off as fiction to avoid causing offence (and law suits)? Canadian writer Francis Guenette considers the issues here from a novelist’s perspective. Inspired by recent discussions on ALLi’s lively Facebook forum for members, she’s turned them into fiction:
Imagine a group of writers has gathered at a neighborhood pub. Pull up a chair, order a drink, and listen in…
A woman tells the group, “A friend asked if my book was a true story. I said no, it’s fiction. He asked if it was true fiction.”
She sips from her drink, before adding, “My husband wanted to know if one of the characters was supposed to be him. I told him: no-one is you, everyone is me!”
Someone pipes up, “A friend was horribly offended by my book – he asked me if it was true. It’s fiction, for God’s sake.”
The woman at the end of the table drains her glass of Scotch and says, “One of my novels won a competition. A brief synopsis was read: a dark love story about twins. Someone sitting in front of me asked, are you a twin? I told her, I don’t even have a brother. Hello… It’s called making stuff up.”
One of the men at the table weighs in, “There’s a presumption that whatever you write must be based on your experiences.”
A drinker of gin and tonic sips from her tall glass. “Yeah, so people think I’ve had an abortion and hate my mother . . .imagine that?”
Her eyebrows shoots up in a perfect bow as she plucks the olive from the glass.
“Well, here’s a good one.” The speaker pauses, fiddles with the coaster on the table in front of her. “The only reason an old friend said he loved one of my books was because he thought I was having a bitchy go at someone we used to know in college.”
“First person narrative messes with people’s heads,” says another. “People wonder if I actually had a child with Sinead O’Connor. Whether I’ve been arrested, tortured and held without trial. I can imagine the questions I’ll get when the one I’m working on now comes out. Did you really want to bump off your ex-girlfriend? Of course, I always confess my crimes in my stories.”
Laughter rings around the table. One person frowns and says, “My book will definitely cause a ruckus for my family – magic, sacrifice, rape, possession, murder.”
“I sidestep the whole issue by making sure everything I write stays in the third person,” says another man. He looks pensive for a moment, adds, “Never helps, though.” He belches quietly and signals for the barmaid.
The Scotch drinker announces, “I’ve lost friends.” She nods to add weight to her words, “Angry emails and all of that. They couldn’t cope, and I couldn’t cope with being judged.” She looks away and says, “Opens up some old wounds when I think about it.”
A woman looks thoughtful before saying, “Readers who know us can be shocked to see a darker side. They wonder where it came from.”
The man next to him sighs, “I usually end up censoring my ideas because of what friends or colleagues might think.” He shrugs and says, “I really admire the writers who say to hell with what anyone else thinks and just write what they need to write.”
An older man asks, “Seriously, though, are there some subjects that we as writers are under an obligation either not to mention or to contextualise if we do mention? At what point is it fair to say – I put this out there and now I am morally culpable.”
The group erupts in conversation, many voices overlap; hands are thumped on the table for emphasis. Finally, one voice emerges above the others. The Scotch drinker has pushed her glass away. “Some readers can’t tell the difference between writing about a thing and condoning that thing. My book explored a grey area. Readers got to take a walk in some unusual shoes. I didn’t cross the line into glamorizing the subject matter. If I knew then, what I know, I wouldn’t have the courage to write the book. I’d pull too many punches.”
Someone points to the clock on the wall – the hour is late. Chairs push back, coats are donned. The writers walk out of the pub and into the rain-slicked darkness.
There you have it – we need to tell the stories we feel passionate about. It’s a courageous endeavor. Friends and family will interpret, as all readers do. We get no second chances to explain. The stories move beyond us.
What are your views on the line between fact and fiction? If you write fiction, are you troubled by the assumptions of friends and family that it’s based on real life? If your writing is factual, do you ever need to add a fictional touch? Let’s discuss!