Can fiction ever be entirely fictional?
Victoria Patterson, author of Drift, wrote in a recent article about autobiographical fiction for The Millions that her writing group would call her by the name of her protagonist, despite her assertions that her character was fictional — and that she endured a “condemning two- to three-month silence” from her family after her book was published.
One of the most interesting things about Patterson’s article is a conversation she had with her father, who brought up an event that he said he wished “had gone better,” to which Patterson replied, “Dad, that never happened. It’s fiction. I made it up.” Which is another challenge of autobiographical fiction: If people recognize parts of the story as true, they may well believe it’s all true.
I’m often asked about how much of what happens in the stories of Forgetting English actually happened in real life. Last week, when this came up at a book club I was visiting, we joked about how they all might want to lock up their jewelry (and their husbands) … but the truth is (quite boringly) that Forgetting English isn’t autobiographical — at least not in the strict sense. Every story contains bits and pieces of my life — some more than others; “The Road to Hana,” for example, was inspired by a real stolen ring, even if I wasn’t the one to steal it — but these pieces are not necessarily reenactments of my own experiences.
In a reading I gave last week at a local college, I was asked about “The Ecstatic Cry,” the Forgetting English story about a scientist living in Antarctica — a character about as opposite of me as one could imagine, in that I hate the cold and barely passed most of my science courses. Yet I acknowledged that this character — a loner who spends as much time as she can at the bottom of the world, who cares more for animals than for humans — does reflect a concerned (and rather cranky) part of myself, a part that wishes we all treated animals and the planet a little better. And while in my everyday life, I express this part of myself in small ways by volunteering and supporting organizations with similar goals, I enjoyed giving it a voice and a life of its own.
If you’re writing purely autobiographical fiction, then you already know about the questions that will await you. And even if you’re not, those same questions will still await you. This is because readers know as well as we do that nothing is ever entirely fictional — even if we did make it all up.
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