The Truth About Fiction – Part Two

I have sometimes offended people with my work.  Occasionally, I have received angry letters from readers who feel I did not paint a flattering portrait of their geographic area. (Characters have opinions that I do not share and make observations of their own.)  I have even lost a longtime friend who did not care for my naming a character after her. (Actually, it was just an initial.  But really? Toss a seventeen-year friendship for what I considered the ultimate act of love? ) I have had a woman approach me with glee, thinking I had lampooned her ex-husband who also happened to be my dentist. (No, certainly not. Though I did use his name.  Why, oh why, did I do that? So not intentional.) My mother wonders (aloud and often) why so many of the mothers in my work are dead or evil.  (Is that true?  I’m sure I don’t know.)

My brother recently confronted me about details I used to describe a flailing consulting company. Was I talking about his company, he wanted to know. (Which, by the way, is NOT flailing but thriving because my brother is a genius and an awesome businessman).  Did I use details he shared with me about his industry, the ways in which those companies fail, the problems his company faced when times were hard? Well, naturally.  What he told me became part of my knowledge base, and I used it for what we writers call verisimilitude. Verisimilitude: the appearance of being true.  Fiction is not true.  But it’s damn important that it could be true, at least partially. Did what I wrote have anything to do with him or his company?  Well, no, not really.  I explain it in The Truth About Fiction, Part One.  Sorry, bro, one of the many hazards of being closely related to a writer.

How do I address these complaints?  Well, other than the quippy one-liners above, I honestly can’t.  What happens when my fingers dance across the keyboard, when I am living in that dream space between imagination and reality, between creativity and memory … well, I don’t have much access to it. Which is not to say that I don’t have a craft that I’ve spent the better part of my adult life honing and hopefully improving.  But there’s a magic to writing; it’s a subconscious and mystical journey.  The conscious me, the real person who eats a sandwich and picks her kid up from school and who is always, always, always watching, observing and taking in details whether she’s aware of it or not, has nothing to do with the me who writes novels. We don’t hang out.

My agent told me recently that she thinks the little girl in the novel I’m currently writing is Ocean, pitch perfect and word for word.  My mother said the same thing. (BTW, when your mother and your agent tell you the same thing independently of each other, it must be true.)  But I must admit, I was surprised. It wasn’t a conscious choice to mimic my daughter’s voice, her habits and quirks to bring this character to life. I never once said to myself, I’ll use Ocean as a model for this character.  And yet, there she is on the page — more or less. I see it now that it has been called to my attention.  But, then again, who else would the six year old in my novel be? How could she be anyone but the little person around whom my world revolves?

I have said it before: it doesn’t take a panel of shrinks to figure out how this all works.

I am thinking about this now as I am reading the final pass for HEARTBROKEN my 11th novel, which will release on June 26.  This is the point where I’m driving my editor and the production department (and myself) crazy with my constant tweaking  … just one more little thing!  Sorry!  Its also the point where I’m the most critical of the book, my last chance to make it the very best it can be.  During this final editing stage, the conscious-me, and the writer-me come face-to-face.  It’s not pretty.

Taking my final passes through the manuscript, I see how some people might be offended by certain thoughts and opinions my characters have.  One of the main characters, Kate, feels badly about herself for being “justamom” as she puts it.  Will some people think I am making comments about women who choose motherhood over a career path?  I hope not – but I wouldn’t be surprised to get mail about it.

One of my characters and her friends quickly shuck aside their “two seasons old coats” at a party, “like embarrassing relatives from Brooklyn.”  I have lots of relatives and friends from Brooklyn, many of them are my favorite people in the world —  my grandmother included.  Will they think I find them embarrassing?  I hope not.  But I wonder … do people know that I am not my characters?

Likewise I have some great friends who are realtors.  But Birdie Burke another of the three central women in HEARTBROKEN, who is a terrible snob, thinks that people who sell things for a living are “worse than a domestic.”  Do I share those feelings … either about realtors (or people who clean houses for a living?)  Certainly not – it’s preposterous.  But I don’t feel I can censor my characters – what they think, say or how they act — without sacrificing authenticity.  I want them to be who they are, no matter how offensive their ideas may be (even to me).

The act of writing a novel is not a thing everyone understands.  People make a lot of assumptions about writers and about the craft itself.  Lots of people want to write novels, or think they could “if they only had the time.”  But those very few of us who are writing a novel a year, and dwelling in a creative part of our minds almost every day are a rare breed.  Most people dabble in creative writing.  Or they may write in the pages of the journal.   The words they commit to paper are likely very personal, even painfully true and close to the bone.

The true writer is more of a medium.  I am channeling the people I write about, hearing their voices and creating a portrait of details.  I often feel as if they are speaking through me, but they’re using my voice, my body, my mind and memory to make themselves heard.  So while I am certainly inspired by my life, experiences and hopefully ever- growing knowledge base – these things just make me a better medium.  I have a greater understanding of people, more compassion for them – and so they feel free to share with me their authentic selves, warts and all.

The setting for HEARTBROKEN was inspired by two important places I visited in the year I began writing the book.  I visited an island owned by my aunt and uncle in Georgian Bay Canada.  And my family and I traveled to a stunning place called The Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge in Alaska.   Both places were magnificent, wild settings of complete isolation.  Both trips had challenging moments, and moments of awe-inspiring beauty. I was moved by the primordial silence, the way a natural setting connects you to your own inner voice, just as it disconnects you from the bustle of modern life. And how there’s something extremely creepy, something dark that seems to weave through a place of wild natural beauty.

But the island in my book is not either place, not really.  It’s not in a real lake, or in a real town.  It’s an island that exists only in my novel.  Certainly, shades of both places might be found in my descriptions.  But really Heart Island, is more than a place. In the novel, it  means something different to everyone.  To Birdie, it’s her one true home, the place where she feels grounded and secure.  To Emily, the third central woman in this novel, it’s a fantasy of what might have been.  A place she remembers only vaguely from some stolen time she spent there as a child, it’s a golden promise, a dream.  For Kate, it’s a tangle of wishes and obligations, longing and dread.

In many ways it’s an allegory for family – that perpetual disagreement between what we want and what is.  It’s a place we return to again and again for all sorts of reasons, not all of them wise or realistic.  It’s not real.  But if I’ve done my job well, it will seem real.  You’ll think you’ve been there yourself, or you might try to find your way there.  It will seem that solid, that possible.

There are shades of truth in every novel – verisimilitude.  But those truths are not necessarily my truths.  The thoughts and ideas, observations, come from minds of people who are often very different from me.  I don’t own them, and don’t feel that I can take responsibility for them.  I once had an angry letter from someone who felt that I’d (with one character description) portrayed an entire people in an ugly and racist light.  I still don’t see it.  I wonder … does that say something about me?  Or about my reader? That’s part of it, too.  What do my readers bring to the reading of my novels?   How does that effect their experience when reading?

My mind and heart are wide open to all my characters, even the awful ones.  And I love them all equally, even as a mother loves her misbehaved children. But ultimately, they are responsible for themselves in a very real way.  Yes, some of my truth, my inspiration, my observations, my memory, my research and earned knowledge are woven into the pages.  But the books I write are bigger than I am; they are more and different, sometimes other. And that’s the truth about fiction.


  1. Tressa Armstead on June 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Reading and writing are both very personal activities. As a reader, you take in this new information with the slant of your own biases, your own experiences, and your own feelings. As a writer, you act as a scribe for all these thoughts running through your head picked up from your research, your experiences, your friends, family and neighbors, and who knows where else.

    Academics will tell you that the sender of a message encodes it with his or her own perspective, and the receiver of that message decodes it with his or her own point-of-view. Rather than complain about what they find in your writing or you find in their questions, it’s much more rewarding to ask how the same information can translated in such disparate ways.

    Great blog, Lisa. I love the discussion.