I recently did a podcast interview and one of the questions was, “Do you put yourself in any of your stories?”
I said yes, I did, all three of my novels have some version of me and make use of people I know or have known.
That’s true, but I wish I had been able to expand on that. The way it is, it sounds as if my novels are autobiographical, and they are not.
For three things, I have never changed into a crow, I have never seen a ghost of my mother or anyone else, and although A Dream of Houses was written because of my house dreams, I have no reason to believe they are from another dimension.
All the same, I think I should take some time to expand on my answer.
The hard part about writing fiction about yourself is to transform yourself into a character. To remember that, although the character may be inhabiting a world and engaging with people familiar to you, both she and those people are fictional. Neither you nor they have done or said these things. Or if they have, these are also things your characters are saying or doing, but in service of a story, not in imitation of you.
It’s a fine line to draw, and I don’t always draw it well. As I liked to tell my writers’ group, it’s especially hard to write a character smarter than I am.
The closest I came to autobiography was my first novel, The Year of the Crow. No, I never turned into a crow. But the early portion of the novel is set in a place and inhabited by people I really did know. Places I could remember with a degree of clarity and people I knew who were not likely to make it into a story. They were an important part of my story, and I wanted to put them there. I wanted to transform them all into memorable characters.
We all become more than who we are when we are in a story.
Ghosts of the Heart was written just after my first drive-through of Britain. England, Wales, and Scotland. I started to write a travelogue, but it wasn’t working until I remembered the feeling that everywhere I went was crowded with ghosts. Ghosts of history, literature, and imagination. That’s when it became fiction, and the me in the story was transformed into Sophie, accompanied by the ghosts of her mother and a real 16th century soldier who had followed her from Westminster. Researching the history of the places I had visited, plus the strangers I had met there, gave me a bad guy, a hero, and a plot. Sophie became a character out of my imagination, and even though we went to the same places, we had totally different experiences and met them in ways I can only dream of. I have slept in a “haunted house,” and couldn’t close my eyes for fear that when I opened them I would see the ghost and I had to admit to myself that I’m really not cool enough for that.
A Dream of Houses was born in my own dreams. I have a long history of dreaming of houses and read somewhere that dreaming of houses means that you are still looking for a house of your own. That idea intrigued me, so I transformed those dreams into alternate realities, using the life I had lived for a while in Seattle while trying to imagine living in one or another life that might once have been available to me. If there was a drawback to this plan, it was in realizing, as my character, Kari, realized, that there had never really been a choice for her, that the “choices” she had made were always choices that she would have made. That there was little to no chance that she would ever have settled down in the suburbs, or found a job she loved enough to make a career of and live alone with a cat – even if the cat was likely the most worthy companion of all. I’m still not certain that I’m happy with the answers I found there, but I am contented with them. They were questions worth asking.
I’m done writing novels now, and am working on short stories, a mix of fictionalized me’s, people I know, and characters created entirely on the page. The latest one illustrates the problem I have in writing myself. It recreates something that happened a long time ago, and I have begun it with a scene from real life. I have given the me, here, and my friend fictional names, and I have written the episode as faithfully as I can remember it. My writers’ group likes it. But I’m not happy yet. As the scene stands, it’s simply a “you’ll never guess what happened to us this weekend” scene. It’s not fiction. Barbara and Marsha are just as we were at the time. We have not been transformed into Glory and Leena. The scene doesn’t go beyond itself. I’ve recounted something. I haven’t created anything.
Writing about myself is easy. Writing myself is hard. I am so full of stories and people and experiences and thoughts. I am both larger than myself and smaller, sometimes much smaller. Sometimes I am other people. Maybe all writers are. The piece I wrote to begin this latest story would go nicely here on my website. But it doesn’t belong as it is in a work of fiction. It needs what I hope I’ve given to my novels. It needs transformation.