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I’ll Bet You Think This Story’s about You: When People Keep Finding Themselves in Your Fiction

28 November 2018

From The Millions:

1. A Phone Call from Mom

“Do you know what your brother did when he finished reading your novel?” my mother asks.

“He WhatsApped me,” I answer. “‘Just finished your book. Great read’.”

I reread my brother’s exact words from my phone. There is a cheery note in my voice because I’ve already won this conversation. With this book publication there will be no family drama. We can skip the, “s/he’s going to kill you when he reads that” back and forth.

“That’s not how it went over here,” my mother says.

“Oh no.”

“I had to throw him out.”

“What?”

“I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Because of my novel?”

“He was raving mad.”

“Oy. You sure it wasn’t something else?”

2. Selection Is Also for Novelists

You might think the agony of what to remove from your work is reserved for nonfiction and memoir writers. True when I do write the occasional nonfiction piece, usually an essay, I agonize if it has anything to do with family. I’m not out to hurt anyone. On a practical level, what do I do?

I change names, genders, ages, locations, and other identifying factors, nothing that’s not standard. I have also at times left a sibling out of a scene entirely if I can get away with it, to minimize the bruising, if I think there will be any.

Mostly, I stick with fiction.

And I’m here to tell you it doesn’t make the problem disappear. I could write about dragons who play tennis on Mars and I would still undergo family scrutiny and receive comments like, “I know who that head dragon was supposed to be,” or “you did a good job of portraying Mom as a fire-breathing tennis champion.”

Famous writers like Ann Lamott are quoted left, right, and center about people who should have behaved better if they didn’t want to be written about. Writers Digest tells us never to write for revenge about our families, to write with compassion, and to be prepared for any reaction.

But who talks about when we don’t write about our families and they’re convinced it’s them anyway? Family is knitted into our lives. Getting together with your family for celebrations, gatherings, and holidays are unavoidable. So at least half a dozen times of year, I get drawn into this conversation about whether someone will be upset by my last short piece because obviously, it’s about them, even when it isn’t.

. . . .

My mother’s phone call is nonsensical. This novel is “family-proof” because it’s blessedly sibling-free; my heroine is an only child. Not only does it fit the story—there are plenty of other characters to contend with—but it saved me from that dark path many writers have to tread stripped naked and often blindfolded: the path of omission.

This hair-raising path has many branches, but “family” is one of the least avoidable routes and “siblings” a prominent sub-section. We often read about writers who work with maps (Google or otherwise) in front of them to depict authenticity in location. There are other, lesser-talked-about sibling maps to navigate.

As a writer with five siblings, I have an intimate familiarity with this route. Siblings see themselves in your writing, no matter what. They point out places they are present in your work in paragraphs where you never put them, not even their shadows.

You can’t imagine what it’s like if you’ve never gone through it.

So if this conversation was a nonstarter, why was there strain in my mother’s voice? She’s 82, but her voice remains the same and since almost 100 percent of our interaction is telephonic (my mother lives in Canada; I live in Israel), I have learned to identify even the slightest change in her intonations over the years.

“He marched over here, burst through the door and he starts. He was having a fit. ‘So that’s it! He says. That’s the reason. Now I know.’”

My mother was yelling now too. She was yelling about my brother’s yelling. I should explain that they live on the same long street, at opposite ends. My brother and his family are as frequent visitors as me and my family are infrequent.

My mother is in full-on brother imitation now:

“I just finished reading Gila’s book. That’s why I never got that job! It was Abba’s ex-wife.”

“What? What job?” I jump in.

“You wouldn’t remember,” my mother says in her own voice now.

“There’s nothing in the book about any job.”

“I know how he thinks.”

Link to the rest at The Millions

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Books in General

11 Comments to “I’ll Bet You Think This Story’s about You: When People Keep Finding Themselves in Your Fiction”

  1. Do you know, I’ve never experienced this sort of reaction over any of my nine novels. Is my family extra sane, or hers extra weird?

  2. I’ve got one family member who thinks I’ve done that – but I should hope that’s because what I’ve written about families is so universal that everyone can relate.

    I’m probably wrong.

    @Lexi – I LOVE your characters! I’ve been a fan since Autho.

  3. I once had a friend upset when I told her I hadn’t based a character on her. We are still friends so she didn’t take the news too badly. One of the advantages of writing popular fiction as opposed to more mainstream family dramas and literary fiction is that people don’t look so hard to make a real life connection. Boring old Mare isn’t likely to run around with such dangerous characters so she must make it all up.

  4. This is why I publish the books under many pen names, and never tell family or friends. They do not understand that:

    – Reality illuminates characters and events, but you have to process them into final form to maximize the result.

    I was at a NY style deli years ago, and I saw odd shapes in the display case that I could not see or understand. In a flash of changing visual perception the objects came into focus as corned beef, pastrami, etc…, in the natural, unprocessed form. They were not in the bland processed loaf that you find at the store, they were big slabs of oddly shaped meat. Only when I knew what they were supposed to be, reading the labels before each, could I actually see them.

    From Scratch Pastrami on a Yoder Smokers Loaded Wichita
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3z1kcZfkEE

    How To Make Corned beef.TheScottReaProject.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyfzzSxqbwE

    Why am I talking deli meats. Come on, it’s obvious. Life, family and friends, are the raw form that you the writer are faced with. By soaking events in brine for weeks, smoking, cooking, boiling, things into their final form you then have something that can go onto the page. If you skip steps, things are still to raw, so family and friends will notice what you started with.

    You will see things, hear things, survive things, that illuminate characters and events. Friends and family may think they recognize what you wrote, but it is not about them, so don’t give them the chance to criticize. They are not your audience/demographic.

    BTW, the way you finish the meat for your sandwich is heat it through by steaming it quickly on the griddle or large flat pan. You put the marbled[*] meat on the hot griddle/pan, cover it with a lid, then squirt some water under the lid. The water flashes to steam, heating the meat through, melting the fat, leaving a nice glisten of fat on the meat. Then you put it on the bread.

    [*] Do not trim the fat off the meat before you heat it up. Trim off the fat? What are you, a savage! a barbarian! the fat is where much of the flavor is. Steaming the meat lets all the flavor be released and the excess melts away.

    If you are the type of person who trims the fat off the meat before you heat it up, then you are robbing the meat of flavor and moisture. If you are doing the same to your prose, then do not be upset when people complain about your dry, flavorless, prose. HA!

  5. I had the opposite experience. In only one of my novels did I use aspects of my family history, well disguised but if you knew us, you could find them. None of my family made any connection. The characters were Russian, we were English, enough said. After that I stopped worrying. Biggest complaint from younger sibling is that I don’t write like Stephen King.

  6. Reminds me of an incident many years ago when my father, a psychiatrist, went to the doughnut shop on a Sunday morning to buy our breakfast treat. Later, a woman told my mother that his presence near her at the glass case made her nervous, because “he could see right inside me!” His reaction: “I was thinking about what kind of doughnuts to order.”

    To some people, whatever happens, it is all about them.

  7. I’m endlessly fascinated by these people in publishing who think that the only books that exist are a very particular subset of literary fiction which is essentially tarted up/pseudo-intellectual kitchen-sink melodrama for the upper middle classes. Maybe if that’s all you write and read and publish you see it everywhere…

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