How Much of this is True?
By Jan Ellison
Last spring, I was in the audience as Ayelet Waldman presented her wonderful novel, Love and Treasure. Waldman gave a riveting talk describing the inspiration for the novel—the true story of the Hungarian Gold Train in the Second World War. She opened her talk by asking the audience what question writers most dread. The answer: Where do your ideas come from?
In her presentation, Waldman answered that question with humor and intelligence as she described how a Google search on “Holocaust, Hungary and Art” led to the discovery of a true story about a train full of valuables taken from the Jews of Budapest before the war.
When it comes to novels that are not based in history, like my debut novel, A Small Indiscretion, that question is even more challenging. It’s really a different question, carefully camouflaged: How much of this story is true?
Years ago, when the first short story I published was included in the 2007 O. Henry Prize anthology, I was standing out front of my kids’ school when a woman I hardly knew poked her head out of her car to say that she’d only read the first paragraph, but would I be willing to tell her how much of my short story was true? It was the first time the question had been posed to me, and I had no idea how to answer it. Did she only want to read the story if it was “true,” or if it was not?
Like all writers, fiction writers strive to get at an emotional truth. Sometimes, even when a story is borrowed from life, the facts need to change for the truth to emerge. Other times, the facts stay the same and the meaning changes. Most lives don’t make very good plots, but life does provide material that can be mined. Anecdotes. Bits of dialog. Situations. Events. Objects. Settings.
In the early years, I also tried to use the people in my life in my fiction, but I was never successful. I found actual people too complex. It was as if I’d done too much research, and I got bogged down by all that I knew. Over time, I found that it was much easier to invent characters than to paint real people on the page.
When a fiction writer takes an anecdote from real life and assigns it to an invented character, it is inevitably altered. Characters operate according to the author’s rules, whether those rules are conscious or not. People don’t. I spent time in London when I was nineteen. So did my narrator, Annie Black. But because she is not me, we interpret our shared experiences differently. Other times, we interpret divergent experiences similarly. I have learned to allow for both.
Nearly ten years ago, when I set down the first sentences that would ultimately become A Small Indiscretion, I was trying to write a coming-of-age story set in London. Four years and hundreds of pages later, I had the makings of a novel set in Europe in the early nineties, but it had no driving plot. It was a story without an ending that had no urgent reason to be told.
Then one day the main character, Annie Black, was not twenty but forty, looking back, addressing a nearly grown son in a medically-induced coma. My twenty-one year old cousin never emerged from a coma after a car accident the year I began work on my novel, so I knew where the impulse came from. But I also knew the boy Annie was addressing was not my cousin, and that the story she was telling would not be his devastating story, but one that allowed for an alternate fate.
To me, the story of the young Annie Black in Europe is about that moment of liberation when a person becomes free to claim an adult life. The present story—centered on her son and his accident—originated in a young life cut short. Both story lines had a leaping off point in my own life—the first, joyfully, the second, tragically—but as I wrote, each demanded to be not mine but their own.
Jan Ellison will be appearing at Village House of Books on Saturday, March 28th at 2:00 pm. Join us in welcoming this talented author on her book’s haunting debut!