“Oh come on, it’s all based on a true story isn’t it? Come on. Tell me. I know it is.”
I hear this comment often. And now that my novel Letters Between Us has been published by Plain View Press and is going out into the world, some of my preliminary readers, friends, and colleagues are certain that it is an autobiographical novel. Interestingly enough when readers take up works written in first person point of view an incorrect assumption is sometimes made that it’s the voice of the author speaking through the narrator. Because my novel is written in first person, other readers have suggested that I am using the narrator in the novel, Laura Wells, as my persona. After all, she attended Hollywood High School, so did I. She worked in television production, so did I long ago. There are other characteristics we do not share, but you’ll have to read the book to discover what those are besides getting to know me.
Amazing how readers read what they want into a work and believe they are correct no matter what I, or other authors might say about their fiction. My two main character’s names were actually inspired by Katharine (Hepburn) and her dear friend American Express heiress Laura (Harding).
Only because a writer friend of mine who had been close to Hepburn—helping produce some of her movies made for television—thought it would be a nice testament to them and their sixty year friendship. In fact, my two lead characters are nothing like Hepburn and Harding, but I liked the way their two first names looked on the page. Also, I admired Hepburn’s work on film and still relish watching them. So that may dispel any notion of autobiography there. Truth is that although the “I’ in the novel is the protagonist, that “I” is not me, but the voice of a completely made up character struggling with issues I did not necessarily struggle with, but that others may be able to relate to.
The fact is that fiction means “shaping” in Latin. So as an author of fiction I am shaping a story I am telling from a world I know, yes, but not necessarily a world I have lived in. Like any artist using the act of sculpting, I must know just how much to leave intact and just how much to pare down in creating a sense of reality, not my specific reality, but the reality of the characters in the novel. This of course is accomplished through manipulation of literary aspects such as setting, point of view, style, tone, imagery, plot, and so on with the assistance of description. And, as any writer knows, description is only an effective tool on the page if it brings alive the reader’s five senses to savor what has been written. But sometimes boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred creating what is referred to as faction.
I do write fiction and have written and published creative nonfiction so I agree that at times lines between the two become indistinct. And as a writer, I see no difference (as writer John Daniel has said) between what I do in creative nonfiction, narrative essay, dated journal entries, dialogue, faction, or memoir, using the same technical devices as a fiction writer might to tell a story. As far as I am concerned it is all acceptable as long as the text we are reading teaches us how to read it. However, not every reader wants to accept that lesson and prefers to put their own spin on what they are reading and its origins.
The important thing about this entire creative act and the result of its output is that the reader is getting a “good read.” As a reader myself, I want to get lost in someone else’s interpretation of reality, someone else’s rendition of another time, another place. I want to believe in those who populate that space. This so I can escape the pressures of my own world, pressures I desperately seek relief from at times. And through the act of purchasing a book, holding it in my hand, inhaling it, marking the place I left off at with a bookmark, leaving it on my night stand, and often, finding the imprints of rings from a moist steaming cup of tea on it, I can do just that. That for me is a good read. Isn’t the experience the book brings us what really counts?
Again, I hear an echo from a friend last week proclaiming that my novel is based on truth . . . and then adding, “Isn’t it?”
“No,” I answer and explain further that “the label Novel implies a work of fiction.” My girlfriend smiles and says, “Sure.”
Linda Rader Overman is a Professor of English at California State University, Northridge. Her work encompasses fiction, and nonfiction consisting of multifaceted elements including photographs, narrative portraits, images, texts, personal and social history, poetry, letters, and diaries. Her novel Letters Between Us was a finalist in the National Best Book Awards 2008. To learn more about her, and to receive her newsletter, visit Linda Overman