Maybe I have no room to talk, given the only book I’ve published is poetry based on life experiences, but when it comes to my fiction, it’s impossible to escape the prodding question of “is ____ based off of ____?” The short answer is most likely, no. The long answer absolutely not.
There are authors who blur the boundaries between themselves and their work such as Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Ben Lerner. Elif Batuman has described her new novel, “The Idiot,” as a “semi-autobiographical novel.” But I’ve always found the presumption of autobiography when applied to my work a little lazy and a lot unfair.
I went through it with a throwaway draft featuring a Midwestern Christian woman who also happens to be morbidly obese. Friends would ask if anyone in my family was Christian, and sometimes, morbidly obese. Too often would family members ask me “how did you write this if you’re not any of those? You’re not fat at all!” Thanks?
My new novel is about a 16-year-old trying to survive life with a mental illness, which describes me pretty well. But I’ve no interest in acting as a spokesperson for those with mental illness’, or for anything, really. I write fiction because it is a beautiful place to hide. If I wanted to talk about mental illness from an autobiographical perspective, I might’ve written something like Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”.
But I did not write that. I wrote a story about a girl, and her friends, and her family, and her art, and it is more than just one idea. It is not a sound bite or a talking point. It is a fictional universe. And how do you even explain the creative process, that there are all these little bits and pieces, that a work of fiction can be a kaleidoscope of your life, looking nothing like the original whole, just made up of shattered bits? Why can’t people let fiction be?
The question of autobiographical fiction seems to have been with us always. Here’s Wallace Stegner in a 1990 interview with The Paris Review: “The very fact that some of my experience goes into the book is all but inescapable, and true for almost any writer I can name. Which is real and which is invented is (a) nobody’s business, and (b) a rather silly preoccupation, and (c) impossible to answer. . . . The kind of roman à clef reading determining biographical facts in fiction is not a good way to read. Read the fiction.”
“The very fact that some of my experience goes into the book is all but inescapable, and true for almost any writer I can name.”
What is with the fascination in figuring out the hidden meaning behind a written piece, trying to connect things in the work with the author’s life? The more cynical side of me thinks it’s the reader’s sense of entitlement to any piece of information she desires. The more forgiving side imagines the reader views it as a mystery to be solved, an added pleasure upon pleasure. On the one hand, it’s invasive, but on the other, it’s a nonfiction in a fiction, and neither should be true.
Writer’s like Junot Diaz are a good sport about autobiographical questions, slyly warding off the implications. Like me, though, Ann Patchett is more wary of the question. “I have a real fear that the whole publication of this novel is going to center around questions of autobiography, which isn’t nearly as interesting as whether or not the book is any good,” she said of her novel “Commonwealth” in Literary Hub. “Most of the things in this book didn’t actually happen, but the feelings are very close to home. Or, as my mother said, ‘None of it happened and all of it’s true.’ ”
“I have a real fear that the whole publication of this novel is going to center around questions of autobiography, which isn’t nearly as interesting as whether or not the book is any good”
Perhaps this issue of “truth” is where my irritation lies: I have the possibility with fiction to make a character feel more real than with nonfiction. I have access to her secrets and interior longings and the power to display them at every step of her life, from birth until death. Nonfiction, while more “true” than fiction, is bound by limitations in part because of its responsibility to that same truth. You can know only so much in nonfiction. But with fiction, you can have it all.
Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.