Am I in Your Book? by Mary Vensel White
If you are fortunate enough to have written a book and to have acquired readers for that book, and if perhaps you’ve managed to create characters that mean something to those readers, then one of the questions you’ll get asked quite a bit (if you are lucky enough to be fielding questions) will be about those characters. Where did they come from? What was your inspiration? Or even: Do you know someone like ____? (Fill in the blank with any irascible/kind/angry/loving/selfish/selfless/genuine/phony/etc. character.)
And I always feel like I’m going to disappoint with the answer, which is, basically: “Yes, but mostly, no.” Writers scavenge but change things. So there may be character traits reminiscent of someone we know or maybe we’ve transcribed witnessed behaviors, but there’s a lot of invention and gray area too. What readers really want to hear, however, when they ask that question is: “Yes! That selfish character is a direct portrayal of my mother, who never had time for me.” (Sniff, sniff). “And the nurturing, huggable character was a grade-school teacher who gave me a poetry book and a dose of self-esteem.” But it’s never that easy, not when you’re writing fiction.
Memoirists have a tough task, with everything right out in the open. There’s no hiding from Uncle Dan after you’ve related the story of his drunken episode that certain Fourth of July, and your brother will know immediately that he’s the mean sibling who ruined a bicycle in Chapter Five, even if you changed his name in the book, gave him blonde hair and made the scooter he mangled into that bike. Of course, it’s been argued that memoir-writing is still just one person’s version of the truth but it’s closest to bare facts or at least, tries to be. It’s not surprising that familial estrangement can follow the publication of a memoir, as relatives disparage the author’s perspective and/or her uncouthness in sharing it.
Fiction writers draw much from their own lives as well. Like many writers, my early fictions—stories, poems, a novel—were very autobiographical in nature. My first completed novel was inspired by my experience of being adopted and as a young adult, locating my biological relatives. Over time and through many edits, the story became less and less about me and more about the characters I had created. Similarly, oftentimes a writer will move further from autobiography with each successive book. I can recall the freedom I felt when I began writing The Qualities of Wood, my second novel, because I had freed myself from the relaying of my own narrative. This would be a story entirely created, I thought, with characters I have brought to life. There was a great sense of freedom in that.
Still, you have to field the questions. Did you know someone like that? Where did your characters come from? Inquiries from family and friends can be especially pointed. “That elderly character whittled wood just like Grandpa,” they’ll say with a wink. Or, “Your brother wasn’t the one who ruined your scooter—you know that, right?” And you’ll be forced to point out all the ways your character differs from your grandfather, to explain that any story in your book is just that, a story. They may even ask: Am I in your book? Best to nod once, then shake your head. “Yes,” tell them. “But mostly, no.”
Mary Vensel White was born in Los Angeles and raised in Lancaster, California. She graduated from the University of Denver and lived for five years in Chicago, where she completed an MA in English at DePaul University. She lives in southern California with her husband, four children and two badly trained dogs in a chaotic but happy home. The Qualities of Wood is her first novel.
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