I'm still thinking about the anxiety of writing about true things.Taking other people's lives as one's raw material.
My late father, for instance, whose inclination, like his counterpart in my book of stories, was to rewire the house when he was nervous. Indeed, the thing my father was tense about (his relationship with my mother) needed fixing immediately, but that was a tough call, and all he could think to do was to fix something else. One could write an essay on the fuse box alone. Admittedly, he also built brilliant kitchen cabinets, rotated the car's tires, baked sourdough bread every few days, and sewed everyone in the family a new down coat — as it turns out, my father was a genius with the sewing machine. So, I guess sublimation's not all bad. As the old Woody Allen joke goes, we needed the eggs.
The ways in which we try to dispel our anxieties are legion, and fascinating. To a writer, this is good news. This is why I watch TV shows on people who hoard until there is no room left to lie down and sleep, who dress up as Minnie Mouse in order to get sex, who gamble till they're bankrupt and walk out of the casino grinning. In fiction, there is nothing more dreary than a logical character — or as William Golding said, "If a novelist makes an entirely explicable character, then the story drops dead." Similarly, any good playwright knows to make characters speak at cross purposes to one another, to mis-answer each other's questions, to ignore the last thing said, to speak in code as if to oneself, to self-contradict. People are much more human when they are unreasonable. You may not admit it at first, but you want characters to be a little unreasonable. When King Lear says, "That way madness lies, let me shun that; No more of that," we can't help but attend to the guilty inner voice saying, "Yes, more of that. Go crazy, you old coot. Do it, do it!" There is a delicious sense that if he goes crazy, we can follow him. We can see what it feels like. From a safe distance. People themselves are inexplicable, and that's one of the "true" things fiction reaches for.
But there is an equally unnerving feeling a writer gets when she takes the real and makes it her own by departing from the original story. It's one thing to have someone say: "You wrote about my divorce," when they did, in fact, get divorced. It's another to have someone say, "That's me in your book, but I never drowned a hobo in my pool!"
In my novel The Outlander, for instance, I based one character on a real person named William Moreland. He also had an excellent nickname: The Ridgerunner. It scared the hell out of me to "borrow" his name, but I did it, and the character worked out all right. Readers find him charming. Moreland, the real Moreland, was a youngish hermit, or what I prefer to call a "solitary," who I'd read about in Cort Conley's wonderful book Idaho Loners. It's a nicely written book and the loners within, both men and women, are absolutely lovely characters, viz the stuff I was talking above.
A hermit is by very definition unreasonable. Right? Who wouldn't want to live with other people? (Who wouldn't want to spend half their life in rush hour traffic listening to the guy on talk radio complain about the government?) I'd give you William Moreland's dates, but most hermits don't have exact dates. They tend to be off the grid anyway, and when they die, there's usually no one there to mark the date. But the Ridgerunner was alive a little later than I suggest in my book. I didn't alter much besides his dates, and from what little we know about the guy, there is much room for speculation. But I did put dialogue in his mouth, I ascribed to him attitudes and motivations, and I made him fall in love. Personally, I think he'd get a kick out of seeing himself portrayed that way. But who knows? He's dead now and can't tell us.
Of course, a writer has no obligation to present the truth, to stick to historical fact. Far from it. Fiction is fiction, and it has its own rules and logic, and if you don't follow that logic, the story "drops dead." The titular character in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient was named László Almásy, after the Hungarian count, but that might be where the resemblance ends. Rather than worry about what was true, Ondaatje made the character his own. And that worked out pretty well.