A common question surfaces when a novel hits the shelves: “Is it true? How much of this is based upon your own reality? Is so and so based on you? Your mother? Anyone you know?” After the shenanigans of James Frey, it’s no wonder that readers are suspect when truth seems stranger than fiction and fiction reads so powerfully it couldn’t possibly have sprung from the mind of a mere mortal.
I’ve read interviews with writers who say, “I don’t know where that character came from; he just walked across the page.” We might set a fiction ball rolling but then some magic, some alchemy between knowing and intuiting takes over and our characters take on lives of their own. First time this happened to me I felt like a real writer. (And yes, I get the irony of that last statement.) Julia Cameron nailed it when she wrote, “It’s not about making things up but taking them down.”
That’s what writers do, we take things down. We can’t help the constant listening and watching: observing how the deep navy seedpods on the undersides of poplar leaves resemble a polka dot skirt, or being struck by a comment so outrageous we rush to write it down because it just has to be used somewhere one day.
Fiction takes a seminal event and streches it, pushing and pulling it into unexpected places. And in the process truths reveal themselves. A novel is true when its wisdom resonates with readers’ own experiences; it is true when it validates and enlightens the world beyond its own printed pages; it is true when readers want the characters they have just spent hours with to be real because they were so wonderful they just have to exist out there somewhere.
When Exit Ghost came out Terry Gross asked Philip Roth the perennial question, “Is so-and-so based upon…..?” Roth’s response went something like this: “If my readers are so busy trying to figure out which characters are stand-ins for the people in my life then they are not getting to know my characters.” He might or might not have continued with “And isn’t that the purpose of reading a novel?” Far be it from me to put words into Philip Roth’s mouth. But he was right. If readers are treating a novel like a secret map to some imagined treasure, they do a disservice to the world the author has moved heaven and earth to create.
Someone once said fiction is reality but even better. So why waste our time trying to parse if this or that character is real or if certain plotlines were pulled straight from an author’s own life? A novel that transports us beyond ourselves, that opens our eyes to new possibilities, that in some small way heals us, is the treasure in and of itself.