Monday, April 23, 2007

Fiction or Fact?

by Chuck Zito

(Actual conversation:)

"So, do you have to pay this guy when you publish one of your stories?"

"What guy?" I respond, knowing in my heart just how baffling the answer was going to be.

"The Nicky guy. The one in your book. Do you have to pay him?"

My friends read fiction. You don't know them, so you'll have to take my word for it, but they do. They read mysteries, science fiction, literary fiction, thrillers. They read a lot of fiction. I don't think any of them actually believes there is a magical castle somewhere north of London where young wizards train. And, while there may be just a little confusion here and there about the Da Vinci Code, for the most part they don't have any issues when it comes to what is and isn't fiction.

That is, until they read my books. Then a very strange thing happens.

(Composite conversation: )

"That character, the music conductor – that's Alice isn't it?"


"Oh. But the guy – the best friend – that's me, right?"


And so it goes. There is an entire group of people on the West Coast who think one of the characters in my first book is based on a theater director we all worked with, even though the book was written before I met any of them. On the East Coast, an entirely different group of people are certain the character is based on a director they and I knew years ago. I've explained carefully that this is not so. They nod their heads as if they believe me, but I can see it in their eyes: "How come I'm not in a book?"

Fine. So I take some joyously idiosyncratic tick from a friend and weave it into a character. What happens? The friend in question never mentions the character who happens to love the exact same type of pickle, squash, and peanut butter sandwich as they. Nope. Instead he zeros in on a character to whom he bears absolutely no resemblance and ask why, after knowing him for twenty-five year, I would be so mean as to describe him as only five-feet four inches tall when he is obviously a prime example of manhood at six-feet one. That's right, my friends who aren't seeing other people in my writing, are busy seeing themselves in all the wrong characters.

Am I upset with people who think I couldn't be making up what I write? Not at all. I'm delighted it's so real to some readers. I'm happy to blur the line as best I can. And I always thank them for reading. It's just that I haven't found the next comfortable response after 'thank you.' What can I say to people who insist that I'm recounting my past and not, in fact, spinning daydreams from everyday life? I cannot possibly be alone in this strange place. What do other writers say?


Nina Wright said...

You are not alone in that strange place, Chuck! Like you, I never insert anyone directly from real life into my novels or plays, although I often "use" real experiences, dialogue, and personal idiosyncracies.

Long ago I "borrowed" heavily from my stepdaughter's verbal repertoire in creating a character for the stage. She firmly insisted that *I* was the stepmother character in the play (I'll admit to being a few shards of that character just as I am at least a fragment of every other character I write). That being said, Stepdaughter failed to see any connection to herself in that piece. In other plays and fiction, however, she was quick to recognize herself in characters not remotely inspired by my knowing her!

Having no friends that I know of who might be writing me into fiction, I can only speculate from this vantage point that it's human nature to identify the air-brushed versions of our would-be selves in fiction. Everybody wants to be the protagonist, or failing that, the faithful sidekick or hilarious comic relief.

To paraphrase Anne Lamott's advice in BIRD BY BIRD, if you must write someone as he/she really is--particularly someone you intensely dislike--simply give the man a freakishly small organ and the woman a hideous venereal disease. No one will ever claim to be those characters. Least of all my stepdaughter, who was NOT the inspiration for Avery in the Whiskey Mattimoe books. I swear.

Candy Calvert said...

Heh, heh. Great post, and I'm sure all of us can relate.

I can't tell you how many times my husband has been asked about his "golden chest chair," since the sexy hero in Dressed to Keel first stripped of that karate robe. The fact that my dh is 60 and has salt and pepper hair and a graying moustache, does nothing to deter these curious folks.(Mostly women, who stand way too close when they ask)

And then there was my own father who, after reading my first book, had this burning literary insight: "You had an affair with a married man!"

Nope. Darcy Cavanaugh did.
And Luke Skyler has blonde chest hair.

Oh, and my ex-husband is certain that I'm planning to kill him off in an upcoming book.
Hmmm . . .

Joe Moore said...

Great post, Chuck. Since Lynn Sholes and I co-write everything, we have twice as much of this issue as most. I always say that the character is based on someone Lynn knows and she blames any resemblance to a real person on someone I know. Seems to work itself out in the end. :-)