Monday, February 4, 2013

Finding the Nonfiction in Fiction

A Guest Blog by Author Leanne Tankel

In Richard Russo’s recently published memoir, Elsewhere, he considers the differences
between himself and the fictitious characters about whom he writes in his novels, concluding that these differences “allowed me to believe, as writer must, that I was writing fiction, not thinly veiled autobiography.” This idea, that the line between nonfiction and fiction, the real and the created, the truth and, if not the lie, then the half-truth, may be a bit more blurred then either the writer or the reader care to admit or even fully comprehend, has come up countless times and in countless conversations since the December 2012 publication of my book, Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage. Those who know me well, and those who know me less well, have asked with conspiratorial glee to reveal which of the salacious details, the prurient conversations of my story are indeed “true.” And I, like Russo, find myself questioning that very notion of truth, of what is imagined, and what is indeed “real.”

As a writer, I have found it absolutely necessary to ground myself in familiar details, so that the story I am writing can come to life. For example, in one increasingly problematic chapter—due to the fact that the character’s real life counterpart has “identified” herself and her spouse as such—I used a familiar setting and actual event in which to paint my fictitious scene. Of course, I may, in some partially unexplored area of my psyche, have a crush on “Matt,” but the scene’s ensuing dialogue was for the most part created from my imagination. Similarly, for those readers delighted (and I appreciate that!) with certain titillating details sprinkled throughout the book, I will reveal that I did have sex in my living room with my husband while watching porn (huge gasp here:), but I thoroughly enjoyed writing the chapter, “Pornography,” using the images and dialogue I felt would make the scene the most humorous! Oftentimes it comes right down to thinking about the “what if…” of a given event or conversation and giving your creative self permission to go (wild) from there! 

At a recent symposium on humor and fiction, one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Tropper, remarked that when asked by a friend or neighbor whether he or she was a character in one of his novels, he (a bit ungenerously, I think) would become annoyed, and think that “people overestimate their appeal; the people I know wouldn’t make for such interesting reading.” Now, while I agree that there is a certain logic inherent in that premise, I must say that many chapters of Broken Hallelujah are based on certain people from my actual life who belie that very sentiment! That being said, even when the subject provides a great starting place from which to create a riveting and funny scene, in fiction that person remains just that: a starting place, a springboard to something other than itself.

One thing that I found while writing Broken Hallelujah is that while fact my indeed be stranger than fiction, the fiction really becomes the story’s only true facts! And those facts, I hope in the case of my book, Broken Hallelujah, will be the ones that make you, dear reader, laugh your ass off…

Leanne Tankel