Yesterday, regular commenter Andy mentioned a poet who seemed to resent being asked if his poem had been inspired by him and his son. As I hope I made clear, I think all questions for writers are fair game. But this is one of the trickiest. It happens that I was asked Friday if a character in one of my early novels was inspired by someone close to me and I found myself almost — almost — nonplussed. The best response, I think, is the new cliche: It’s complicated.
First of all, let’s put aside the issue of roman a clefs, in which we are supposed to associate the characters with well-known people. That’s a very specialized subgenre, one in which I don’t traffic.
But are characters in my books based on real people? Yes. No. Not in the way you think. Not really. Kinda. But no, not in the end, not if I’ve done my job right.
I understand the question, I really do. As a reader, I also am curious about the “real” in fiction. I think it’s because, much as I try to suppress it, I have a yen for gossip. Just recently, I pulled THE STORY OF MY LIFE off the shelf, thinking it would give me insight into Rielle Hunter, said to be the inspiration for the main character. But in the end, the girl in that book is Jay McInerney’s creation. She informs us only about her character and McInerney’s ideas about a certain type of young woman in a certain era. The writer Julian Barnes is on the record as saying he considers this book a magnificent achievement in terms of voice; I go back and forth. It’s a pretty great voice, but I feel the portrayal falls short of true empathy, which may have been the intent.
Obsessed as I’ve been with Philip Roth, I’ve found it hard not to look for clues for his life in his work. Clearly, that is his first wife in LETTING GO and MY LIFE AS A MAN. Yet when Roth finally published a memoir, THE FACTS, it was instructive largely as a way of detailing how one can take a true incident from one’s own biography, use it in fiction with almost no embellishment and still transform it. This is the case with a pivotal scene in MY LIFE AS A MAN, but also a scene from WHEN SHE WAS GOOD. Here’s what Roth writes about the former:
“To reshape even its smallest facet would have been an aesthetic blunder, a defacement of [my wife's] single greatest imaginative feat . . . “
An excerpt from THE FACTS appeared in Vanity Fair. In a subsequent issue, a friend of Roth’s (now deceased) first wife wrote to complain that he had been slandering her for years, first in his fiction and now in his nonfiction. That letter gave me pause. I resolved to try to read differently, to stop looking for the truth about real people in the fiction of others. It’s a hard resolution to keep, especially when one’s TBR list includes novels such as AN AMERICAN WIFE and HOMER AND LANGLEY, when one has grown up reading Erica Jong.
I will tell you this much about my work: I have used many, many bits of my autobiography, but I almost always give them to the characters least likely to be associated with me. Like Ronnie Fuller in EVERY SECRET THING, I once created a complicated narrative based on the colors of my magnetic alphabet set. Like Jane Doe in WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, I worked in a Swiss Colony — and was fired from one after the seasonal downturn.
And, okay, like Tess Monaghan I was once a dancing Comet can in a ballet performed at Baltimore City Jail.
Am I anyone in LIFE SENTENCES? Were those characters based on real-life people. Yes. No. Sorta. It’s complicated.