Where Fiction Comes From (An Open Letter to My Parents)
Dear Mom and Dad,
I had imagined writing something like this by hand or on the typewriter and sending it to you as an old-fashioned letter, folded like a bookmark in a bound copy of the galleys, and maybe I still will, but as I was washing the dishes the other night it occurred to me that this might be something worth addressing here. In public. On the internet. For everyone to see. For ever and ever. Whatever that says about the way we communicate in this day and age I’ll leave for someone smarter than me, but it seemed totally appropriate during my quiet moment of reflection over the dirty sink. And before I over-think the whole thing (a habit of mine, of late) I figured I’d just go to my computer and start typing.
So here we are. Hi!
I know it may seem like I’ve been keeping my book from you, a fact that I worry has provoked some suspicion about what exactly is in it. Despite your not-so-veiled interest in reading it (“What’s it about?” asks the well-intentioned neighbor, and before I can answer: “Your guess is as good as ours—he won’t let us read it!”), the reason you haven’t read it is truly because it wasn’t done. Even though it had sold, it wasn’t done. Not because I was keeping any of it from you. But before I get into any of that, let me just say this:
It’s not about you.
It’s not about you.
It’s not about you.
And I’m not just being coy in saying that. If there’s one question writers get asked in uncomfortable question-and-answer sessions it’s some variation on, “Where do your ideas come from?” And while the question may seem inane to most of them (do you know where your dreams come from? your feelings?) I think it’s really a way of getting at this essential issue: how much of this thing is make-believe? Or, more directly, how much of you, the writer, is in here? Where, in this stew of imagination and memory and projection, can I actually find you?
And I understand that impulse. I’ve often had the sense that what I really want, as a reader, even more than an absorbing, transporting experience, more than to laugh and hope and fear and love along with the characters, or see the world through their distinct points of view (all the stuff that writers spend so much energy on), is actually to feel a direct connection to the person who wrote it. I feel a little sheepish admitting that, since so much of the craft of fiction is about building convincing worlds of the imagination—about the veil of art—and yet when I honestly think about myself as a reader, it’s often feeling close to the writer that gives me the greatest pleasure. This is why for a long time author photos were a fascination of mine, particularly for books I loved, and why I tended to fall in love with novels faster and harder when I could locate the writer’s vulnerability in them. Emotional risk is often more satisfying to me than even the most intricate cathedrals of the imagination.
Anyway, having said all that, I ended up writing a pretty standard character-veiled book. Like, where do I get off, as a 24-year-old kid, starting a novel about a man in his sixties? As so many classmates of mine in graduate school pointed out, that seems like a sure recipe for disaster. Imagination and memory may be rich, but projection is often flat and embarrassing—often simply wrong. How can I possibly pretend to know what it’s like to be someone other than me, how can my imaginings be anything but an approximation?
The answer is that this book wasn’t a projection. You’ll see that right away, I hope. Anders is a 62-year-old man, and while I’ve given him certain details from both of your lives, his interior life is wholly my own. My preoccupations as a young man. My fears and concerns and conflicts. When I started this, I was getting out of college and looking for a job at the same time as you guys were leaving yours, retiring and moving away, and I think that confluence of events got me thinking (worrying, really) about what exactly happens in between.
I heard John Updike (who I was reading a lot of at the time) say that Rabbit, Run came about by imagining his greatest fears realized—being stuck back in his hometown, having never left, saddled with the responsibilities of a young family—and from there he didn’t have to imagine much, because those were conflicts that were already at war in his own heart. He just played them out. Character, according to Aristotle and whoever else, is desire—what we want tells us who we are. But I think the Rabbit model is just as enlightening—what we fear tells us just as much.
In my case, looking back, I was trying to figure out how to be an adult, how to be responsible to others without ending up marooned in a place where I resented them for it. So much of adulthood seemed, from that perspective, like a subjugation of yourself, like a long series of compromise. Being a good person continually seemed like a willingness to take one for the team. And it was all too easy for me to imagine ending up, at the end of all that, angry and lost and willing to fail the very people I had sacrificed for. I suppose that was what I most feared. I could see myself becoming that. So Anders was the embodiment of that fear played out through my imagination.
I made him divorced (which, of course, you are not) and I had him stay in Connecticut (which, of course, you did not). I gave him two very different sons and an ex-wife whose own needs threw his behavior into much higher relief. None of these were conscious decisions, none were intentional. They just kind of came out that way. The internal logic of a piece of fiction is something that takes a long time to find. It’s buried in there, this complex thing, and you feel it long before you know it. Anyway, I think I was able to find it—or at least get close—by imagining the effects on a family once one person decided their responsibilities to the others no longer held. That was my make-believe.
But you’ll recognize the details. The house, the Volkswagen Thing (pictured at the top), the long summer evenings barbecuing on Compo Beach. I don’t have to list them all here, but there are bits and pieces of your lives and mine, and particularly of stories our family has told. The reason they’re in there is not because I think they have some larger meaning, or worse, because I have been harboring some kind of resentment that I think they expose. No, they’re in there simply because, as I was writing, they helped me believe the world I was creating. I didn’t have to stop and say to myself, “Nah, dude, you made that up.” If I could believe it, I could silence the critical part of me, that jerk who was always whispering in my ear that I was a fraud, that I was full of shit. Getting anything done required turning the volume on that guy all the way down. It required tacking down the big tent of my story with enough real details that I could buy my own make-believe. Otherwise the whole thing would just fly away.
Or something. My metaphors are getting away from me here, but I guess what I’m saying is that the fascinating thing about fiction is that, at least in my experience, you can’t just sit down and write about something. It just doesn’t work that way. It gets tremendously boring and one-sided and dull. Instead, you have to play, you have to sit back and let the peculiar mix of memory and invention and emotion and language well up and do its thing. You have to let all of it stew. Essentially what I’m saying is that the real answer for the person who asks, “How much of you is in this book?” is always “Everything.” No matter how far the subject may seem from the writer’s life, a piece of fiction is always a deeply personal expression. Everything in it comes from within.
I can’t imagine that every writer doesn’t, on some level, feel exposed in the lead-up to publication. What was once intensely personal is soon to become intensely public. We can hide behind the mask of fiction, but that mask probably reveals more than any confession could.
Anyway, I tend to get ruminative when I’m worried about seeming sentimental or gooey or overly exposed, but let me just say this: nothing in this book is some larger indication of what I think of you. It never could be. What I think of you, as your child, is too complex even for art. It’s a love that is unfathomably intricate. A book could never do it justice. It’s a love that is much, much too big.
This book, on the other hand, is just a thing I wrote.
Your son always,