Mary Grehan, author of ‘Love is the Easy Bit’, addresses the question that every writer of fiction dreads.
You’ve written the novel and sent it off to agents or publishers or both in a state of mild disbelief that you have completed the journey this far. You’ve written 70,000 plus words of sparky dialogue, character development, atmospheric description, plot surprises and a sprinkling of philosophical musings. If you’re lucky, a publisher will make a declaration of love (you quickly learn that publishers tend to talk in terms of love) and say those magic words: ‘We want to publish your script’ (you also quickly learn that your novel is now a ‘script’). You learn other things too. You learn about the scrutiny of the editing process (don’t take it personally), you learn that your editor needs to be able to ‘see’ everything you describe, that your timelines had better be watertight and you learn that book covers are potentially the most contentious issue between writer and publisher. You get carried along the birthing canal to publication date, learning all the way and then you arrive into the world as a published author.
You get up early on the date of publication like a child on Christmas Day and head to your nearest bookshop to find your book. If you’re lucky, it will be out front under an indiscreet ‘must read’ type of sign. You may get your friend to take a goofy photo of you with your book while the booksellers smile knowingly to each other in the background.
You do a public reading, or have a launch, or both. You do interviews (many of them over the phone at eight thirty in the morning). Then you meet friends who by now are reading your book.
‘I’m reading your book,’ they say.
‘Great,’ you say.
‘I like it,’ they say. You try not to wince at the surprised tone in their voice.
‘Is it autobiographical?’
And there it is, the question that is too loaded and convoluted to ever be answered fully and honestly and clearly. Your friends may as well have asked for a key to the inside of your brain and permission to wander around inside.
‘Em, er, no, of course not,’ you retort, a little too quickly.
‘Maybe, just a little, in places. But not how you think.’
Or you take a step up to the moral and intellectual high ground and utter something like ‘it’s a flawed question’, thus you hope making the world a little safer to writers who follow you (especially if you get to say it on national radio or TV, which I haven’t. Not yet.)
And it is a flawed question.
I write fiction. I draw upon personal memories and experiences. I twist and mould them to make them fit the needs of the story. I weave bits of people I know into my stories, but very specific bits. I know a man with ‘single spaced eyes’ and I know another one whose freckles, it could be said, make him look like a spotted animal. Both the eyes and freckles appear in ‘Love is the Easy Bit’. I locate the action in places that I know, sometimes with a good deal of accuracy. I stitch this together with made-up stuff so that any one sentence can be a combination of fiction and so-called autobiography.
More to the point, I draw on those themes that concern me, large overarching themes such as loss, alienation and belonging and it is, I believe, the themes of any book that reveal most about a writer.
I got a text from a member of my family the other day. ‘I’m reading your book,’ it said. ‘The house on page 43 is definitely…’ and he goes on to refer to a house that is known to us both.
I stared at the text and wondered how he expected me to respond.
‘Bingo. You’re right. Congratulations. Keep going,’ I could have texted back as if the book were a puzzle waiting to be cracked. ‘There’s a prize at the end for the most clues solved.’
But if I were to affirm his text, he might text me later to complain that a reference to the house on page 106 is not in keeping with the place we both know and he would have cause for complaint, if I were writing non-fiction.
Another friend said she found the first hundred pages of my book difficult to read. She could not shake off the thought that it was I who had written them and for her, reading my book felt intrusive, as if she were reading my diary. After that, she got into the story and me out of her head. Whew!
John Green prefaces his novel The Fault in our Stars with an author’s ‘reminder’ that his book is a work of fiction. He writes:
‘Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.’
So why do published writers bristle at the autobiographical question? Even newly-born ones like me?
My guess is that we invest unknowable amounts of effort into creating the illusion of fiction. We make improbable things happen, the more improbable the better. It is our job to make the improbable probable, to stitch together the story so that the seams are invisible and the illusion seems real. The reader is asked to collaborate in this illusion by receiving the book with an open mind and heart and not let themselves get tripped up by questions around what might have happened ‘in real life’ and what might not, which inevitably get in the way of the story.
And so I say to readers who are friends and friends who are readers, when you open ‘Love is the Easy Bit’, forget you ever knew me and consider the words of novelist and essayist Julian Barnes:
‘Novels tell us the most truth about life: What it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong and how we lose it.’
If we accept that all good fiction is a kind of truth, the question ‘is it autobiographical?’ goes up in puff of smoke.
(c) Mary Grehan
Mary Grehan is author of ‘Love is the Easy Bit’ which is published in Penguin and now available in paperback.