I stole the title of this post from a scene late in the film Sideways, but I could’ve taken a similar line from nearly anywhere—for instance, the second of Orhan Pamuk’s Norton Lectures (collected in The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist), titled “Mr. Pamuk, Did All This Really Happen to You?”. Referring to his novel The Museum of Innocence, he offers two contradictory answers and says he believes both sincerely:
- “No, I am not my hero Kemal.”
- “But it would be impossible for me to ever convince readers of my novel that I am not Kemal.”
After various public readings, I’ve been asked how I know so much about a tiny (fictional) town in Nicaragua, told I had been terribly mean to a (fictional) woman after a (fictional!) drunken one-night stand, and offered condolences on the (FICTIONAL!) high school car accident in 1978 which my first girlfriend was killed—1978, in which I, Daniel Perry, wasn’t yet born.
My new book, though, is set in Southwestern Ontario small towns a lot like the ones I grew up in. And which fiction writer hasn’t been told when starting out, “Write what you know”? As I alluded to in my last dispatch, I’ve found that if not the “it” itself, one does have to know at least enough like “it” or context around “it” to succeed in writing anything that could make the reader say, in Pamuk’s words, “Yes, life is exactly like this”.
But if it seems lifelike because you used real life—a real person, a real town, a real incident or a real tragedy—what then?
Another small-town Ontario short-story writer—do I even need to say her name? The world-famous small-town Ontario short-story writer—once reported being asked why, if the town of Jubilee was not her actual hometown of Wingham, did it also contain a Shuter street? Why was a real person’s real ceramic elephant on the mantelpiece described? “Why do you put in something true and then go and tell lies?”, Munro supposed some would want to know.
She conceded that she could say she gets momentum from these bits of the real world—“starter dough”, she called it—but also, that she could claim to be trying to show what the old days were really like, or the dark side of human nature, or how bad things were under an old system. Then, she countered herself: “The minute I say to show I am telling a lie,” she said, referencing her story “Royal Beatings” and an anecdote it uses. “I don't do it to show anything. I put this story at the heart of my story because I need it there and it belongs there. […] Who told me to write this story? Who feels any need of it before it is written? I do. I do, so that I might grab off this piece of horrid reality and install it where I see fit, even if Hat Nettleton and his friends were still around to make me sorry.”
Dave Eggers, writing the mirror-image of fact-based fiction—the fictionalized memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—expressed no reservations about writing from his own life: “I was born into a town and a family and the town and my family happened to me. I own none of it. It is everyone's. It is shareware. I like it, I like having been part of it, I would kill or die to protect those that are part of it, but I do not claim exclusivity. Have it. Take it from me. Do with it what you will. Make it useful. This is like making electricity from dirt; it is almost too good to be believed, that we can make beauty from this stuff.” There remained, however, a ceramic elephant in the room: the book included an appendix that could be read when the book was inverted, titled “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making”, which detailed where the story diverged from actual fact.
I couldn’t bring myself to read that part.
Like the starter dough Munro speaks of, like Eggers’s dirt, I’ve often characterized the fiction-based-on-fact process as using dirt to make clay before using the clay to make the sculpture, an analogy I don’t recall stealing but which I well might have.
When I think about where fact and fiction meet, I’m reminded, too, of a passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
“[C]haracters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something about.
But isn’t it true that an author can write only about himself?
[…] I have known all these situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them… The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.”
Milan Kundera, writing against a totalitarian state—the passage above comes just after Tomas declines to sign a petition, as it will just endanger him and the other participants anyway—has an obvious reason to think about traps and unrealized possibilities. But without diminishing that actual experience, I find the thought quite universal.
Characters, unlike real people with real families or real jobs to keep, can quite believably take actions most people wouldn’t, be that defiantly standing up against a corrupt cop wielding a machine gun or callously entertaining a late-night drunk-dial—or bull-headedly meting out a punishment that could only ever be an empty threat, like in my story “Big Man”, based on a rumour I heard (about my own cousin, no less) making his son walk miles to school after hearing the boy had misbehaved on the bus.
I never did find out if that last one really happened, and I can’t say that I care. Writing is always about exploring unrealized possibilities. And let’s say you are working from life experience: it will change as you write it, anyway. Fiction based on your own family of three siblings might work better if two are combined into one, and the street on which you had that life-altering conversation you’re importing into your work might become the one a couple of blocks over, or a coffee shop, or a beach in an entirely different country. You’ll change the words you said, too, and I don’t mean just simple substitutions; if you’re doing it right, you’ll keep only the pieces you need, and fabricate only what’s missing, whether you’re turning fact into fiction or, like Eggers, occasionally doing the opposite.
Hypothetical from Sideways, then: a friend reads my book and leaves me a phone message asking, “Did you really go through all that?”
No. And, yes.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Daniel Perry’s first short fiction collection, Hamburger, was published in 2016. His stories have been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize and appeared in publications in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and the Czech Republic. He has lived in Toronto since 2006. Nobody Looks That Young Here, a collection of linked stories, is his second book.