A friend recently gave me a copy of an essay she’d come across about the all-too-common situation of a writer meeting someone for the first time who seems to know everything there is to know about her. This, the writer said, is the danger of being honest on paper (or in cyberspace). Everyone seems to think they know you.
Long before I published my first novel, Murder in Mellingham (1993), I listened to a woman at a cocktail party (if she hadn’t had already two drinks the conversation might have been different) vent over the use of her surname by our local famous writer, John Updike. She felt violated. Unfortunately, her last name was fairly common because the family had been around for quite a while. But I got her point.
No one wants to pick up a book and read what seems to be her life story, or an excerpt from it, in someone else’s novel or essay. We feel that our lives are our own property, and that means keeping them to ourselves when we’re not sharing the tantalizing details with our friends old and new. It’s one thing to share a tale of woe with the new family on the block at a buffet welcoming them, but it’s entirely different to read about it in an essay on line—when you learn too late that the new woman writes for a regional newspaper.
Equally discomfiting is taking questions after a book talk and having one woman in the audience ask if the character in chapter 7 is your mother. I got this question from a woman of the same age as my mother, and I assured her the character wasn’t my mother. Years later I went back to that chapter and reread it, and then I understood why she asked.
I’ve had similar questions about other characters, locations, and murder victims. One woman sidled up to me after a talk and said, “That’s so-and-so who gets killed, isn’t it?” She simply wouldn’t believe me when I said no. Another reader informed me she knew exactly where I set a certain novel because she lived just down the street from where the victim died. I had to tell her she was nowhere near close, but she insisted she was, and then said, “I understand why you don’t want anyone to know where you set the story. It wouldn’t look good. Better not to say.” One acquaintance came right out and told me, “Never tell anyone where this is set.” I have no idea why.
There is no doubt that sometimes a detail from someone else’s life is tossed into the mix of a character or scene, but it’s only one part of the whole. In a short story soon to be published by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, “Variable Winds,” a young woman sets sail on what is meant to be her very last trip. I based the story on my own experiences sailing with my family when I was growing up. Everything in that story happened, but not all at once and not all to me alone in that boat.
The story led to a novel. In Come About for Murder, Chief Joe Silva teaches his stepson, Philip, to sail. The plot involves a lot of detail about the harbor and bay. I know someone is going to come up to me and tell me they remember taking that sail with me, or that a new house has been built and removed the dock. They’ll share their sailing stories, including the disasters, and then say, “You can use that if you want.”
Readers often hear writers talk about the isolation of this line of work. But the flip side is the unexpected and presumed intimacy that develops between reader and writer. When the writer puts feeling on the page, the reader enters into another world. When she closes the book, she takes a new familiarity with her. But as real as the created world is to both individuals, it isn’t reality. When you meet a writer, that is the time to listen and discover who is that person who created another world so vivid and lifelike. That is the time to understand how different book and creator can be.
For the original article, “Pretend You Don’t Know Me,” by Dani Shapiro go to http://preview.tinyurl.com/zv9sl7y