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Truth in Fiction

Having taken on the book tour and the Wall Street Journal in my first two blog entries, I thought I would move on to Oprah. Not Oprah herself, of course. I'm not that stupid. Instead I thought I would put in my two cents worth regarding the whole Jim Frey controversy, which is rapidly becoming a pivotal cultural moment in regard to how we think about truth.

For me, I think the most telling statement to come out of the whole controversy was from William Zinsser, an author who has written extensively on the art of the memoir. When the whole Frey controversy first broke, The New York Times quoted Mr. Zinsser as saying:

"I think that the strength of the memoir comes from history and from the truth of what people did and what they thought and experienced. That is more rich, more surprising and funny and emotional and compelling than anything that could be invented."

As a novelist, I was tempted at first to snarl, "Sez you, bub." But in fact, I don't really disagree. What is most bemusing about Mr. Zinsser's remark is that he seems to believe that somehow fiction writers don't write from life but just "invent" everything — much the way one believes as a young child that artists just blithely draw people and landscapes across a canvas, without requiring a model.

Of course good fiction writers draw everything from life, whether directly or indirectly, from all of our own, human experiences. This even goes for science fiction and fantasy writers. As a historical novelist, I "make up" very little. I like to say that no one can make up anything more colorful, fascinating, or downright bizarre than actual history, and particularly American history. I do extensive historical research on my books, and I feel that research very much informs the work. For me, the "fictional" work lies in trying to personalize this history, to make these other times and places come alive in characters that the reader can intimately identify with.

What was it like to be a mixed-race family, in the streets of New York during the terrible draft riots of the Civil War? To visit the world's first, incredible amusement parks out on Coney Island? To walk into a rent party in a Harlem apartment during World War II? Don't we all want to know these things? And everything else?

Different writers have different approaches. They are just as valid. My friend Darin Strauss, the author of Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy, and one of the finest historical novelists writing today, takes a diametrically different tact. He believes in doing "as little research as you can get away with" — a dictum he learned as a student of E.L. Doctorow, who believes the same thing and who does this sort of work better than any of us. The idea is not to be overwhelmed with digressions and historical detail, but to concentrate more closely on the characters involved.

I need the research to find what I wasn't looking for. To get those little tips and clues to the zeitgeist of a time. Which leads to a whole other question, when one comes to writing about the past. How fundamentally do different times and societies affect human nature?

I started off writing historical fiction with the idea that human personality is essentially fixed — hence the failure of the fascist and communist "new man," and countless other ghastly social experiments over the ages. That while customs change completely, human beings are still motivated by the same, basic desires and emotions: lust, greed, love, fear, hatred, jealousy, sympathy, joy, etc.

This still strikes me as basically true. But after writing historical fiction for some time, I began to question just how meaningful this formulation really was. Isn't it possible that different times and places can produce human psychologies so different from ours today that we would find them truly alien?

I put this question to Martin Scorsese, when I had the privilege to interview him prior to the release of Gangs of New York. He replied that he had long wanted to produce a television series showing the progress of a Roman family through the period when the Empire moved from being predominantly pagan to officially Christian; c. 300-350 AD, or so. He would have liked to examine how the family's whole way of thinking, its whole worldview changed.

I think this is an excellent example. There are no doubt many others, especially in modern times, as all of human existence seems to accelerate, and change becomes more and more rapid and dramatic. And hence my own thinking has changed. This is, now, a dynamic tension that I try to keep in mind as I write about different eras: remembering how deeply alike we all are, how universal our experiences...while also remembering how different the way we see the world can be, how our perceptions and beliefs can lead us to do things that, in another time, would be seen as inhumanly cruel and barbaric; or blasphemous and hubristic.

All of which leads us back again to the basic question raised in the Frey imbroglio, which is to say what is truth — or maybe to put it a little more precisely, what is the value of truth in writing? For my answer to these and other earth-shaking questions — you'll have to wait until tomorrow. I have five days to fill up, after all.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. On Writing Well, 25th Anniversary:... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  2. Writing about Your Life: A Journey... New Trade Paper $14.95
  3. Chang and Eng Used Trade Paper $3.50

  4. Strivers Row
    Used Hardcover $4.50

Kevin Baker is the author of Strivers Row

3 Responses to "Truth in Fiction"

    miriam March 8th, 2006 at 9:25 am

    I was struck by reading last night (in the addendum of Strivers Row?)your comments about The Autobiography of Malcolm X and how they reflected on this current hoopla over James Frey. There are questions about truth, but also questions about discriminating readers. Hope you go in both directions.

    KyleRanger March 10th, 2006 at 10:35 pm

    To be fair, Real McCoy came out in the middle of 2002, so Strauss still slips in under the 4-year wire.

    Seems like five years though. I used to have similar fits when bands took too long between albums, but it's worse with your favorite writers. An album you can play over and over again while you're biding your time. How often do you reread novels? What percentage of the novels you've read have you read more than once?

    Seth Christenfeld March 10th, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    My friend Darin Strauss, the author of Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy, and one of the finest historical novelists writing today

    Yeah, but Real McCoy came out five years ago and he hasn't published anything since, dammit.

    (I bitch because I love - I just read Chang and Eng for the first time and adored it to no end.)

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