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!)