The idea for this post arose from a brief discussion on my Amazon Author page in which a gentleman who read an excerpt of STILTSVILLE in One Story magazine left a comment noting that although he liked the excerpt, he thought a detail about the hurricane described might be inaccurate. Another reader brought some more info to the table, and then I chimed in with my own mea culpa. I really appreciate these readers who cared enough to post messages, and they touch on a larger discussion about factual accuracy in fiction writing, and where writers draw the line.
A lot of historical events happened in the three decades covered in STILTSVILLE, all of which anyone living in Florida during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s will remember, and many of which are at least mentioned (if not described in detail) in the book. Did I get every detail right? Definitely not. Did I prioritize my fictional world over the real one? I don’t believe so, and I hope not. But it’s not as simple as it seems at first glance.
More on this later. The discussion thread got me thinking about how writers weave fact and fiction, which got me thinking about myths about writers and writing. This whole line of thought snowballed, and has resulted in a post that I’ve chopped into three sections:
1. The Mad Alcoholic Writer myth and the Thinly Veiled Autobiography myth
Although most writers live domestic (read: not terribly interesting) daily lives and keep regular schedules and drink in moderation and exercise regularly and so on, there is still an ideation out there, in the American mythos, that writers are typing madly into the wee hours with a tumbler of single malt Scotch beside their keyboards. This archteypal writer is great at parties, tells stories about his benders in which celebrities and circus animals play starring roles, crashes on your couch with his shoes on, cheats on his wife and in poker. He is critically revered and is considered one of the great minds of his generation.
This is all OK with me. That mad alcoholic writer is far more interesting than I am, and he definitely exists (just not as commonly as we all might want to believe). Whether many writers have a dark little room inside their hearts where their inner, tamed, mad alcoholic lives is a subject for another post.
I loved this Paper Cuts interview with Lauren Groff, in which she describes a typical writing day, which includes “waking up to a screaming toddler,” then going out to her “wee little space that my husband carved out of the back of our garage. We call it a studio, but that’s being kind.” Now, that’s a writing day I recognize!
Another literary myth is that novelists are writing, at the character and plot level, about themselves. Of course, I understand the misapprehension. I mean, I tell people I’m writing about a family living in South Florida in the 1980s and 90s — what are they supposed to think?
Writers are often gently accused of creating characters who are thinly veiled versions of themselves, and plots that are thinly veiled personal experiences. Sometimes writers claim it, proudly — after all, what’s so wrong about that? — and sometimes they break down what’s true and what isn’t in their novels, and sometimes they just say that the novel is fiction, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes they are taken at their word; more often, they are not.
I have a friend who wrote a scene in which her teenaged main character gets into a shouting match with her much-older sister — and the author’s own sister called her after the book came out, asking “Did I really say those terrible things to you?”
By this time, my friend had a little practice answering this kind of question. “No,” she said. “It’s fiction. I made it up. But I’m glad you thought the scene seemed true to life.” And she was being truthful — the scene was fiction, wholly and completely, and so were the characters. But she was glad her sister was so absorbed by the writing as to believe it might have actually happened in real life. She said she didn’t think her sister believed her.
The thing is, I don’t write about my family. I don’t know how. If I were to try to write a novel about my father and my mother and their complicated relationship to each other and my complicated relationship to them — I would fail. Horrifically. (I might fail in writing fiction, too, but not quite as blindingly.) I would feel disloyal, inhibited, whiny, and probably even dishonest. I love my characters, but they aren’t me/my mother/my father/my husband/my in-laws/my friends.
This isn’t to say I wouldn’t toss in a detail or two from my own experience (my family really did jump off the stilt house porch, for example, and throw water balloons at sailboats), but in the context of different characters, the original implications and meaning of the detail are lost. Rather, the detail absorbs the implications of its new context, and takes on a different meaning altogether.
I knew that Harper was running low on galleys of STILTSVILLE, but last week I received a second request from a blogger for the book — she’s from Florida and had a particular interest, so I wanted her to have one, whether or not she chose to review it. Unfortunately, I think I kind of promised one without realizing that by this point not only was Harper running low — they were out.
I own three personal copies of the galley. One is riddled with my own marks, which I made when it arrived even though I would not get another pass at the manuscript — so that one’s trashed. Another is loaned out. A third sits on a bookshelf in my living room, where I’d like it to stay. And my father’s been asking for one, so I’d like to oblige.
Coincidentally, at about the same time that I realized I needed just one more copy of the galley, I also received word that one was for sale on eBay. Rescued!
I purchased it for $9.95 plus the cost of shipping. (I should say that I realize there are some ethical issues with buying galleys in the first place, and I apologize to the kharma keepers for my bad behavior.)
I sent a note to the seller saying that I hoped what I was doing wasn’t weird, buying my own book and all, but thanks. The seller responded with this message:
“Hello — you are not the first one to purchase your own — Tony Bennett bought one of his own LPs from me for instance — I also had a witch who put out an LP in the 60s about how to seduce men in a witchly fashion buy her own LP – said her house burned down and lost everything – so it’s hardly weird — Thanks, XX”
It was kind of the guy to reassure me, and I really am grateful that I found it.
But then I started thinking about my little book and its little future. I want everyone I know, everyone I’ve ever met, to read this book. I mean everyone. Not because to make it a bestseller, but because I worked a long time on it and I think it’s kind of neat — not perfect, not brilliant, but pretty OK, with some above average parts — and I’d like everyone to share that. (And if they want to blog their review, great!)
Contractually, I’ll receive 25 copies of my hardcover. Considering the length of my acknowledgements, these will be out the door as soon as they arrive (save the one for prominent display on my bookshelf, of course).
So how realistic is it to think that the galley off eBay is the last time I’m going to buy my own book? Probably not realistic at all.
In graduate school, when I knew nothing about publishing and very little about writing (now I know a little about publishing, a bit more about writing), I found myself the designated dog-sitter for a visiting writer, whose latest novel was months from being published in hardcover.
On top of the television in the writer’s rented home was the jacket cover of her newest book, wrapped around some other hardcover. When it arrived, she’d been surprised by it, and she wasn’t quite sure yet if she liked it or not. She’d been told by her editor to prop it up in her home, and try to get used to it.
That a writer of her regard didn’t have a say in her own cover surprised me. But then again, she wasn’t a designer — which is what she explained. She trusted her editor and the talented people in the design department at her publisher.
The story behind STILTSVILLE’s jacket art — which I love, and which is perfect for the novel — is this: someone in Harper’s design department was acquainted with photographer named Jason Fulford, who shot a series of Stiltsville in 1998 for LIFE magazine. Jason was kind enough to send Harper his photographs, and they chose one to be the cover of my novel.
The contracts that were signed between Harper and Jason are, needless to say, not my business. Neither is the choice of the cover art — I have, contractually, the right to be heard on the subject, but not the right to decide one way or another.
Michele Young-Stone, author of the new and much-adored HANDBOOK FOR LIGHNING STRIKE SURVIVORS, wrote recently in a guest post for Barnes & Noble’s Unabashedly Bookish blog about the travails of her own novel’s jacket design. This is a great read, and informative. There were no similar dramatic twists in STILTSVILLE’s design history.
As I’ve mentioned, one of the things I found most compelling about this photo is its sense of quietude. (Though I should say that quiet is a word I still flinch at in connection with my book, after its prominence in rejections by editors and agents, and its frequent use as a euphemism about character-driven novels, my own included. Still, it’s the right word when describing the cover photo.)
The other thing I like about the photo is that the day isn’t sunny, the sky isn’t blue. It’s an eggshell-sky day, of which there are many in South Florida, believe it or not. And of course there are many of these days in the lives of my characters, figuratively speaking.
However, just this past week I received a new .pdf of the jacket from my editor, who said they’d received some feedback that the cover was a little bleak, and needed punching up. So this is what they did — they punched it up. I had to put the covers side-by-side to see the difference, but then I could tell that the color of the new version is, well, a little punchier.
Which I think was the right decision, though briefly I wondered — this is giving the whole thing too much thought, I realize — if the new version might be misleading. But, ultimately, the novel is not bleak. (Side note — my husband recently finished THE ROAD, and was so shaken by it that he woke up our toddler to give him a hug — now that’s a bleak book!) But the truth is that STILTSVILLE is sad. And it’s a lot of other things, including (I hope) funny and sweet and, at times, smart.
So my cover found itself early and had only one slight change; could have been much worse.
This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. This was my second Mother’s Day as a mother, and my fourth as a motherless daughter. I spent the day ricocheting between joy and gratitude and despair and loneliness. And that night, after my son was in bed and I was free to give in to the despair, at least a little bit, I opened Facebook and noticed a post on my wall from the William Maxwell FB page. (I always feel an urge to chuckle when I see a missive from the WM people — what on earth would he have thought about this medium, anyway? And if there are so many people out there who love WM, how come I’ve only met a few of them?)
Anyway, this was the post:
Mother’s Day thoughts from William Maxwell: “When the novelist William Maxwell was 10 years old, his mother died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Maxwell wrote, “It happened too suddenly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it … the beautiful, imaginative, protected world of my childhood swept away.” He later said that every book he wrote was an attempt to capture that experience. He was once asked in an interview what he would say to his mother if he could talk to her. He replied, “I would say, ‘Here are these beautiful books that I made for you.'”
Reading this the first time, my heart raced a little.
Which got me thinking: am I doing this for my mother? Novel #2 has a narrator with a dead mother — but the narrator is not me, and the dead mother is not my dead mother. Surely if I were doing this for her, I would have finished the first one before she died, wouldn’t I have? She really would have liked that.
But: to my mother, there was no better occupation (or preoccupation) for me than writing. She was one of these would-be writers, herself. A person who thinks a lot and reads a lot and listens and intuits and tells stories — but never had the confidence to sit down and do it, start to finish. I am only barely, a generation later, a person who can do it. Or rather, I jump in and out of being that person as if fleeing an inhospitable environment.
STILTSVILLE is dedicated to my mother and my father. Each of them is responsible for the book in a very real way, and they are partially responsible for whatever comes next. Support comes in a lot of forms, but to give someone the implicit, unflinching approval that what they are doing is worthwhile, even fantastic — that is a great gift. Both my parents gave this to me, without the slightest hesitation, always. (When I accepted a new teaching job a few years back, I called expecting them to be pleased, but instead they both said, “But when will you have time to write?” They were right, of course — not until the teaching went did the writing come.)
This is the gift I hope to give to my son. My husband is a loving and generous man and a wonderful father — but he’s of pragmatic, Midwestern stock, and I think that if our son chooses to spend his life in pursuit of something as elusive, complicated, and self-propelled as writing (or painting, or acting, or any other creative pursuit), it will be me, his mother, who will give that implicit, unflinching approval. Maybe I am — or should be — writing for him. So that someday he can look at me and say, My mother did what she wanted to do with her life. It wasn’t easy or simple or consistent or secure, but she did it, and I can do it, too.
My husband works in an office, in IT, and at his new job he attends a once-weekly meeting in which each member of his team speaks for one minute — and only one minute — about what they’ve been doing, what they’re doing now, and what they plan to do next. From what little I know about such things, I think this method comes more or less from the scrum approach to project management (also called agile development) (yes, I used to work in IT — I know things!), which since I learned of it a few years ago, I’ve thought was pretty nifty.
This is not a bad idea for Writerland.
One of the many differences between writing for a living and doing something else — say, in an office — is the lack of accountability.
On the macro-level, there’s accountability, sure. But daily, not so much. A lot of writers like to hunker over their keyboards like zombies over a corpse, glancing up possessively to make sure no one comes too close. But I’m thinking about experimenting with a more open process (for example, I gave 100 pages of my new novel to my writing group — which is obviously a no-no. But how do we know it’s a no-no? Who does this and lives to tell about it? I know all the arguments, and I agree with them, theoretically. But what am I protecting, exactly? And does it outweigh what I might gain? Flash forward to 100 pages sitting, marked up, in a drawer of my desk.)
I’d like to attend a weekly meeting like John’s, but full of working writers instead of IT guys and gals. In the minute we are each given to speak, we are not allowed to use the words Facebook or Twitter or laundry, but we are allowed to mention writing-adjacent activities, like publicity or teaching or readings.
“I taught two seminars and wrote a lot of junk last week,” I might say. “Well, maybe not a lot, but some. And I wrote one really good paragraph that may or may not ever be published–” this part is assumed by all in attendance, but I say it anyway “–and this coming week I hope to expand this sentence into an entire scene in which my four main characters huddle in a room while a storm rages outside and tell each other the truth about what they think about Georgia’s situation with Graham. And then Jojo dies alone in the sunroom, where a window has blown out — this is not the cause of her death — and no one in the living room knows it happens until the morning, when they’ve staggered out from under their storm-hangovers.”
(I will skip over the fact that this might be just one more way to avoid the actual work — because I just came up for air from an hour-plus of Freedom, and will immerse myself again shortly, so today it’s OK to diverge a little.)
I write Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Thursdays I’m with my son, and the weekends are for leisure and family. So on Mon or Tues or Wed or Fri, I’ll update this blog and its many curious and attentive readers (just kidding) for one minute’s worth of a post about what I’ve done, what I’m doing, and what I plan to do.
Last week: Let’s just call it a wash. There was a lot of meandering, some terrible scene writing, and a lot of Activities That Shall Not be Named. Today, I’m writing a scene that might substitute for a scene I’ve already written, to take the novel in a different direction -– in the old scene, the hurricane veers north and spares the big house where my characters sit. In the new scene, which I’m writing now (almost literally), the hurricane hits, and so on (see above).
And I guess the best thing I’ve written today (which, again, may or may not ever come to ink — and, also again, might be saying something not-so-wonderful) is: “Peter gestured and we both looked up at the ceiling, where a hairline crack in the plaster slowly extended from the light fixture toward the fireplace, as if drawn by an invisible hand.”
In my fantasy of Writerland, each week we hold an e-conference wherein each of us is held to one minute’s worth of accountability. How energizing and just plain fun I think that would be, hearing what everyone is up to on the page.