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The Biography Problem

I have never written a blog before, so when the good people of Powell's asked me if I would be their guest blogger this week, I agreed. There were also fresh doughnuts involved. Maple glazed with two strips of bacon on top. (Deal, sealed.)

Thank you, Powell's! I am deeply flattered.

I do not typically write non-fiction. When I sit down to write I immediately go into my "So, one day this kid Barnaby pulled down his pants during recess" modeWhen I sit down to write I immediately go into my "So, one day this kid Barnaby pulled down his pants during recess" mode, so I am very pleased to be here, writing about Things That Go Rumbling Around In My Brain this week. I thought I'd begin with the question I am asked most about The Convalescent right now, indeed what I was asked when I launched the book with Robin Romm at a fantastic reading at Powell's last month:

"Where on earth did this story come from?"

To answer that question, I want to zip back to last April. A few months before the publication of the novel, my editor called to discuss the remaining few questions before it went to press. Eli and I were chatting for a while, but then suddenly the phone went silent.

"What is it?" I asked.

Eli made a long, strangled sound. Then he said, "We have to discuss your biography problem."

"What is a biography problem?"

"Well," he said. "You've written a novel about a sickly little Hungarian dude."

"And?"

"You're not Hungarian."

"I'm not sick or male either," I said.

"It's a biography problem."

I carry around the Biography Problem everywhere I go. It is the question most everyone asks me.I carry around the Biography Problem everywhere I go. It is the question most everyone asks me. It's what everyone wants to know:

"Where on earth did this story come from?"

It's the Experience vs. Imagination smackdown.

It is Earth vs. Mars.

I would love to hear Jeffrey Eugenides' answer to this question. I would love to hear Italo Calvino. A.S. Byatt. I certainly don't blame people for wanting to know the origins of fiction: fiction writers are takers, thieves, inventors. We are mischievous, and cannot be trusted. Perhaps this is why that photo and those few biographical sentences on the back of the dust jacket calm nerves. They establish trust. "Even though what you are about to read is a lie, this person exists — and look, they have relevant life experience."

There are no biographical sentences on the dust jacket of The Convalescent. There is no photo. There is, however, a gorgeous and evocative panorama of original art, designed by Jacob Magraw Mickelson. I am so in love with the art for this book, so flattered that McSweeney's hired an original artist who actually read it, and created an image that so accurately captures the heart of the story, I didn't even notice the absence. A friend pointed it out to me. "They forgot to say who you are," he said. "And there's no picture."

Apparently seeing the author's face on the dust jacket means the book exists. There's the author, and look, she was born in 1974. That makes her 34 years old. Isn't that a little on the old side to have a first novel out? Didn't Zadie Smith publish hers when she was 24? Who was that chick who wrote the physics novel? She was hot.

"Zadie Smith is hot," my friend said and looked at me. "When was the last time you got your hair done?"

"I cut my own hair."

"."

"It saves money. Haircuts are expensive."

"."

"I should get a haircut?"

"How old is that shirt..?"

My current wardrobe is circa 1998, the year I decided to take writing seriously and stopped being able to afford the new fashions.My current wardrobe is circa 1998, the year I decided to take writing seriously and stopped being able to afford the new fashions. I wear large t-shirts. Normally-waisted jeans. Plaid flannel. Boots. For the author photo you have here on Powells.com, I treated myself to a new shirt courtesy of the sale rack at the Gap for $6.99. My friend insisted.

I have a biography problem.

I have a fashion problem.

But back to how an American she-person from a small farming community in Upstate New York writes a novel about a thousand years of Hungarian history through a sickly, near-midget who sells meat out of a bus —

Tune in tomorrow to learn about the origins of The Convalescent, and Jess will cook a special dessert she knows the kids will love.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jessica Anthony is the inaugural winner of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award sponsored by McSweeney's. The Convalescent is her first novel.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Convalescent Used Hardcover $6.50


Jessica Anthony is the author of The Convalescent

One Response to "The Biography Problem"

  1.  
    Lynette Mosher August 18th, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Wasn't there some heath bar and ritz cracker number you used to make?

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