From The New York Times:
When something extraordinary happens, we often say it’s stranger than fiction. But reality routinely, every minute of every day, outdoes all realist fiction in its strangeness. Recently two women working on the same floor of a Florida hospital discovered they were sisters (they had been adopted by different families in the 1970s). We read this item in the newspaper and accept it as astonishing, but real. The same occurrence in a realist novel, though, would be called unlikely or unbelievable. We’ve arrived at a point where not only is reality stranger than fiction, but we don’t allow our fiction to be even close to how strange real life is every day.
This double standard has consequences: Authors self-edit, making their fiction less bizarre than their own lives — than life itself — for fear that their plots will be deemed unbelievable. The fact that we as readers and writers don’t seem to allow our fiction to be as strange as our reality is, well, strange.
One December afternoon, when I was 21 and living in Manhattan, I took a walk in Riverside Park. “Ma’am?” I heard a man say. I turned around thinking maybe I had dropped something, but I hadn’t. The man had red hair and glasses with delicate frames. His right hand was tucked into his unzipped leather jacket. He kept silent but stepped closer. I turned and continued walking in the same direction but quickened my pace.
“Ma’am,” he said again. “I have a gun. Just do as I say.” He showed me the gun and instructed me to walk to a nearby bench. I looked around to see whom I could appeal to for help, but the only people nearby were young mothers pushing babies in strollers.
We sat on the bench, and the man informed me — twice — that he wanted to die. Then he elaborated: He didn’t want to die alone.
My hands started sweating inside my gloves. I could read the tiny letters on the sides of his glasses: “Giorgio Armani.” I am going to be killed by a man wearing Giorgio Armani glasses was the refrain that pulsed through my head. I needed to get the man to a busy street, I thought. I pictured a bookstore on Broadway, and the phone behind the counter. The man put his gun to my temple. Adrenaline coursed through my body and brain.
“There’s so much to live for,” I said to him. “There’s poetry!” I sounded like a deranged schoolteacher. But I saw something in his eyes, some willingness to hear more. I recited some of Mark Strand’s poems — the first stanza of one poem, the final stanza of another. The man seemed intrigued, or confused. He agreed to accompany me to the bookstore to see what I was talking about. But as we neared the perimeter of the park, he suddenly apologized and ran away.
This event became the opening scene of “And Now You Can Go,” my first novel. Everything that followed was fiction — a medical mission to the Philippines (I have never been to the Philippines or on a medical mission), a re-encounter with the would-be assassin (I never saw him again, and the police never caught him).
But while readers assumed I’d traveled to the Philippines, and some even identified with the details of my nonexistent trip, few believed that a character would resort to poetry in such an extreme situation. In a couple of circumstances, the scene was called “improbable.” I wanted to say, “But it happened to me.” Instead I remained silent about the book’s autobiographical origins.
Link to the rest at The New York Times