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It’s Fiction, People! A Novelist’s View On Reactions To Writing

Cover of Disappearing in Plain Sight by Francis GuenetteHow 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! 

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16 Responses to It’s Fiction, People! A Novelist’s View On Reactions To Writing

  1. clare weiner January 10, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    Isn’t it odd that people both expect that a writer might ‘put them into’ a novel, or that a writer has already done that? Or that the writer “is” the central character? This assumption has rather put me off publishing a novel I wrote about a transitioning transexual: would people then assume I was once a man? Hum…neither I nor any of my family happen to be transexual, and the whole thing was researched, including interviews with some lovely and interesting people who are. But I am still dubious about the publicity were I to publish it – with disclaimers of course…No, I never personally ‘put’ people I know into fiction: all the characters are ‘invented’ even if bits of the raw material are drawn from life experiences.

  2. Lillian Avon January 10, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    You have to be careful sometimes in case of litigation. I seem to recall that the author Jake Arnott was sued (for £25,000) for putting in a name of a character of someone who worked in the music industry whom he had never met or knew but who was a figure who actually existed by that name and profession. However, censoring your writing is never good as it will suffer.

  3. DUVETICA Japan September 29, 2013 at 2:42 am #

    Offer you! I would at this very moment collapse on this blog every day!
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  4. Candace September 28, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    My issue is not so much friends as it is critics. I write about dark subjects. My characters are deeply twisted and complicated as well as being occasionally being thrust into the dark, secret society supported by the church. I have had the nastiest comments posted then they felt the need to divulge the entire plot. If you don’t like something, that is fine. Say you don’t like it but don’t post nasty comments about how that would never happen in the church or a religious organization would never do that. It is called fiction for a reason. It is also why I have had to start putting a disclaimer in the front of all my works.

  5. Debbie Young June 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    I write short fiction and memoir, and sometimes the two blur. What worries me about using real life experiences as a starting point for my short stories is that it makes it too easy for your memories to morph into fiction – it’s like creating my own false memory syndrome. I tread very carefully…

    • Francis Guenette June 16, 2013 at 3:56 am #

      That’s an interesting point, Deb. I suppose the active choice to take off into fiction from a real memory could create what you speak of. Or it may just accelerate a process that we go through all the time – we are constantly revising our memories from the perspective of new knowledge, new insights, new experiences. I would say that a pure memory does not exist. And to use a memory as a starting point, is just that – a starting point. I do hear you on the tread lightly part, though. We fiction writers seem to have to walk on a veritable tight rope most of the time.

  6. shaun ivory June 14, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    I have written three novels, published two, a fourth WIP. Am toying with the idea of a memoir(Irish childhood, loads of interesting – now gone – stuff about the 1940s that I believe today’s readers would enjoy) but held back from revealing the truth about my father; he was a charismatic, physically and verbally abusive, domineeering control freak. This in Catholic Ireland. My nieces and nephews(his grandchildren) remember him as a loving and funny man, without any real flaws. Problem: some of them are my real friends and I don’t want to hurt them but leaving that out will, I feel, distort the narrative. What to do?

    • Francis Guenette June 14, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

      This is a very hard question because as you can tell in the ‘story” above, readers (family included) will draw their own interpretations about truth or fiction. Maybe the best answer in some cases is to write under a pseudonym. But depending on the amount of detail, family and friends may still know. We fiction writers are definitely hanging out there in the wind with a lot on the line.

  7. Pete Morin June 14, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    My wife would appreciate reading this – so she understands she’s not alone.

    But I’ll be damned if I’ll take the chance.

    • Francis Guenette June 14, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

      I hear you on that one, Pete. Some people will probably never hear about my books and I’m happy to leave it that way.

  8. Toni Kenyon June 14, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    I have a story that I have written based on my own experiences (as yet unpublished) but these experiences are also somewhat embellished – so the story can actually be described as ‘a fictional story based on fact’.
    Is that wrong? I don’t know, I guess my readers will let me know in due course.
    As it is, every book I have published thus far is a total figment of my imagination, but I still have people who know me looking to identify me or other people in my life within the framework of the characters in these stories. I find that fascinating – especially as I enjoy the freedom to experience emotions and situations through my characters I would never have the ability to experience in my own life.

    • Francis Guenette June 14, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

      Hi Toni – I am absolutely struck by the idea of where one’s reality ends and fiction takes over and how we draw that line – and then how others interpret where we thought the line was. In my debut novel, I described how someone had been killed in a logging accident. I drew on what I remembered of my own brother’s death and then went off into fiction with my characters and settings. When family members read this part of the book some thanked me in tears for the depiction and others felt violated, saying it was too true. I do start to wonder if we can ever write anything that isn’t to some extent autobiographical.

  9. Althea Hayton June 14, 2013 at 9:32 am #

    I teach writing to a group of women in the University of the Third Age. They all want to use their personal experiences in their writing. Our last session focused on the idea that they should ( or need not) discuss their writing with any people who may recognise their own character or activities. I made the mistake of using my sister’s experience in the first fictional peice, – a short story – I ever got published, and rather than be pleased for me she felt exploited and invaded. I am sure that if I had asked her first if she minded, that it would have been fine with her and I would have been able to say : “Don’t worry it will be fiction, not a true story.”

    • Francis Guenette June 14, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

      I would have loved to be in on that discussion with your group of writing women! What a dilemma, though. In your case asking first may have resulted in a more favorable reception. On the other hand, I’m sure many people would say no outright, but had the person waited and read what was wrote, he or she may have actually felt fine with it. So tricky. And as many of us have discovered, standing behind the word “fiction” is no protection at all. I met someone in my small town the other day who had read my book. She took me aside and said she knew exactly who the same-sex couple who ran the organic bread bakery were based on. I was stunned because as far as I knew these two characters were based on no one I’ve ever met. And yet she was insistent. I had no idea what to say in the face of her conviction.

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