How Much Truth Is In (My) Fiction? Or…what do you mean it’s not about you?

My all-time favorite story about being a writer is from the day my first column was published in the Chicago Tribune in December 2007.  It was a piece about holiday cookies.  No recipes, just a story about the diversity of holiday cookies and how they don’t kvetch about being on the same plate. You get the gist.  My  friend’s mom read it, called her and said, “I didn’t know Amy was a baker!”

My friend replied, “Amy’s not a baker, Mom.  She’s a writer.”

As you can imagine I’ve been talking a lot about my writing since Friday when news of THE GLASS WIVES and its premise about a woman, compelled to live with her ex-husband’s widow in order to save the home she loves, all while scandals erupt in their suburban paradise, became public.

Point of fact – I am a divorced mom in a small town whose children’s father passed away many years ago, and obviously people who know me personally, know this.

So, what’s the first question people who know me ask?

“Is this book about you?”

The answer is no.

But, I realize (now) that it is a reasonable assumption to think the answer is yes, even though everyone who knows me knows that I don’t live with anyone besides my kids and our dogs and in the book the main character lives with her ex-husband’s young widow.

I realize (now) that it is a reasonable assumption to think the answer is yes even though me + scandal = me +  roller coaster. Not. gonna. happen. in. this. lifetime.

I realize (now) that it is a reasonable assumption to think the answer is yes even though the book blurb states the main character needs to save her home. The only thing that needs saving around my house is the growing pile of laundry.

It IS reasonable to think that the story is my story.

I also think it’s reasonable for me to think you’ll believe me when I say it’s not, so I’ll explain.

Truth is a springboard for fiction. (Word choice thanks to genius, non-writer bff)

Or, like my dear author friend Randy Susan Meyers said about her amazing book, THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS:

“No. It’s not me — it’s nuggets of all my fixations blown up into a world of crazy.”

Yeah. Like that.

I mined my own life and plugged in a thousand “what ifs”  and the result is THE GLASS WIVES.

It was a fun and creative, if not exhaustive, process as I discovered I loved writing fiction.

When writing fiction that is believable emotional truths are essential — so the fact that I have wonderful friends and family enabled me to write some characters that aren’t so wonderful at all.  Knowing what it’s like to have a best friend for thirty years enabled me to write a friend who’s willing to drop someone like a hot potato.  I have many friends who have sisters, and my main character has a sister.  It doesn’t mean I wish I had a sister instead of a brother, it means I used the truths in my life to create a world that doesn’t exist.  You know, like JK Rowling but without Hogwarts or magic or Voldemort or spells.  Ok, nothing like JK Rowling, but I did see an interview with her where she said that because she’d lost her parents she was able to write about Harry being an orphan.  It doesn’t mean she wishes she was an orphan as a child or felt like one or thought she was magic.

Fiction is a compilation of emotional truths that writers stretch and mold to fit the needs of a particular story.

For example, I’ve lived in ranch houses for the past eighteen years or so.  My characters live in a two-story colonial.  I promise you I do not wish that my house had a second floor, but it was fun to IMAGINE creaking stairs, kids jumping off the steps and landing with a thud, what might be at the bottom of the steps.

Another nugget of wisdom passed onto me by Randy is this:

“I recently read in The Nobodies Album, a novel by Carolyn Parkhurst, the butter that I can finally put in the cookies, a phrase from Parkhurst’s the main character, a writer, who muses: “There’s an analogy I came up with once for an interview who asked me how much of my material was autobiographical. I said that the life experience of a fiction writer is like butter in cookie dough: it’s a crucial part of flavor and texture — you certainly couldn’t leave it out — but if you’ve done it right, it can’t be discerned as a separate element. There shouldn’t be a place that anyone can point to and say, There — she’s talking about her miscarriage, or Look — he wrote that because his wife has an affair.”

I hope I never forget the phrase (and that I always give proper thanks to Ms. Parkhurst) the butter in cookie dough. What a perfect capture for fiction — taking the elemental issues with which one struggles, giving those problems to one’s characters, and kneading those thorny emotional themes that haunt into the thoughts, minds, and actions of those characters until, hopefully, you can beat that sucker into submission.”

It’s exciting to know that my novel will be published and my words read. I hope that all of you reading this and everyone you know will read THE GLASS WIVES and maybe think a little differently about the composition and meaning of family.

I wrote and published essays and articles for years before even attempting fiction.  I never even made up bedtime stories for my kids because I didn’t think I could.  Now I’m at a point where I don’t write much non-fiction anymore (if you discount this blog, although I’d rather you didn’t) because my life is like any other life. I’m living it. It’s personal – and it’s pretty much the day-to-day existence of a working single mom with a kid in college and a kid in high school and two crazy dogs and a pile of laundry. Or six.

I’d rather write believable fiction by combining my experiences with my imagination, insight, intuition and research to create people, places, events, problems and solutions that don’t exist but that could exist.

Does the fact that I don’t want to write about my life mean I’m boring?

I think it means I’m an author.

(OMG, I’m an author!)

24 thoughts on “How Much Truth Is In (My) Fiction? Or…what do you mean it’s not about you?

  1. An author—yay!!! So excited for you, Amy (I realize I’ve said that a few times already but…it’s worth repeating)!

    I love the butter in the cookie analogy. I think I also heard someone (I think it might have been Eleanor Brown, in a blog post, but I could be way off) say that when asked how much of her fiction is based on real life, she replied something like: “Less than you’d think and more than I realized.” We can’t help but put pieces of ourselves into our fiction, though they’re not always the pieces people would expect.

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  2. This is a question I’ve heard a lot too, and it’s even been taken one step further for me. Because I live in a small town, everyone knows that I’m a writer, many people know that I write a blog and fiction about Maine. I also ask friends/community members questions aka do research for my book. Then people ask me: “am I in your book?” The more confusing question I get is “How can you write about living in Maine when you didn’t grow up here?” Or even more confusing: “How can you write about an extrovert when you say you’re an introvert?” So unlike you, the easiest answer for me to give is: “Yes, the book is about me.” Or since I’m not facing (imminent) publication, a better decision is for me to tell nothing about what I’m writing! Great post! And CONGRATS again! 😀

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  3. Awesome perspective on how writers mine their emotions and the harvest the good stuff from their lives and the lives of the people around them to come up with the starter culture for a good story. And I smiled from ear-to-ear when I read your last line “OMG, I’m an author!” I only hope one day I have the privilege of making someone else smile like that!

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  4. I’m still so excited for you, Amy Sue. You must be floating on a cloud of surrealism! I also LOVE this post. I think that’s one of the most “fun” elements of being an author: keeping your readers guessing about what ‘could be real’ and what is imaginary. When I read Jeffery Eugenedies MIDDLESEX, I remember wondering if the fictional character was him (and I won’t spoil the story by telling you what I, admittedly, Googled … to see if he had a certain medical condition). The interviews I read said, “Sure, I used my own physical description to describe my female character. But folks, this is fiction.” (Ok -I paraphrased). So to me, that melding of real-life and imagination is what is so fun. Keep ’em guessing!

    And I absolutely love Carolyn Parkhurt’s “butter in cookie dough” explanation (is this because I have such a penchant for cookies?). Thoroughly enjoyed her book, THE DOGS OF BABEL.

    And your definition of fiction is primo: Fiction is a compilation of emotional truths that writers stretch and mold to fit the needs of a particular story. YES!

    Congrats, again, dear!

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  5. AMy,

    I am not sure I could even begin to define where I end and my fiction begins. Thank you for lifting me up today with, “OMG, I’m an author!” Indeed, INDEED, I feel your joy.

    Sending warmest wishes,
    De

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  6. Soooo can I copy and paste these two lines:

    “Truth is a springboard for fiction” and “I combine my experiences with my imagination.”

    I want to use them in future to defend myself to family and friends. 🙂

    Excellent post. I’m writing a fiction novel where the idea sprung from my life experience, but I used my imagination to create another story. I purposely didn’t write a memoir and when the people I know as what its about and I tell them the premise, they automatically without fail say “oh so its about your life?”

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  7. Truth has to be a part of our fiction, I think, in order to make it authentic… but just as you say, it isn’t the autobiographical kind. I have not yet had many questions like yours… someone was curious how I knew how to represent the different psychological emotions of my main character (who was sexually abused as a child and was a homeless prostitute through high school – not at all like my youth) and most entertaining was to find that my husband was projecting me into my main character and her relationship with her male counterpart. He would say that it would confuse him how she would react to something. Dear husband, she isn’t me, I swear it. Does she have some of me in her? Of course. Can’t be helped.

    Hey, guess what? I follow this cool AUTHOR and remember when she was “just” a writer. Awesome.

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  8. Amy – So So Excited for you. Congratulations!!! I can’t wait to read The Glass Wives. I’m curious what your kids think, especially since they’re at the age that comes with boatloads of required reading. I hope they took you out to celebrate. =)

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    • Lori,

      My daughter is 16 and convinced I’m famous (oh, to be young and naive) and since she and I spend ample time in book stores, browsing and turning out the books of the authors I know and both of pointing to the books we’ve read and want to read, she is thrilled. She is a book lover and a crazy reader. My son is almost 20 and is not a reader but he’s excited because he understands the importance of it to my career and to me. Both kids were at home when I was first published in the Chicago Tribune and both helped me buy lots of copies of that Sunday edition and frantically leaf through it looking for my story. So I think he gets it. I remember standing with them outside a local mini mart just laughing hysterically because there I was – their mom – me – in the Chicago Tribune.

      Thanks for asking!!! As for celebrating…I haven’t stopped. But now, there’s work to do!

      Amy 🙂

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  9. Well written blog, Amy. Truly hits home on many levels.

    Aside from fiction writing, I spit out poetry and post it at a blog. The day came when someone read one of the poems and thereafter made the accusation that the poem was about him. Really? Vain or what? Anyway, I took it as a compliment since poetry has many different meanings to those who read it. It struck a chord and that’s my motivation behind every poem I write.

    As your friend said, reality is a springboard to fiction, whether it be a novel or a poem. Whatever it takes, right?

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  10. Love this! Being an author is the ‘what ifs’.

    When I wrote my NaNo last year about four women in a book club , all my book club friends wondered if it was each of them. No, but what ifs.

    Now I’m writing a novel about a woman having a second chance at love with her male best friend; she also suspects her husband is cheating. Well, I started this last year and this year discovered my husband was cheating. Is it autobiographical ? No, my best friend is very happily married to someone else and I don’t love him like that. But about the cheating spouse? I wonder if the ‘what if’ subconscious knew more than my conscious self.

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