In the essay below, Ms. Pearlman writes about the time her personal book club discussed her novel THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE CLUB. I couldn't ever imagine sitting with my friends as they talked about a book I wrote! In addition, she talks about the balance between truth and fiction in her writing. I hope you enjoy this guest post as much as I have!
The Truth in FictionI was excited, and, yes, slightly intimidated when my book club decided to discuss my first novel Christmas Cookie Club. A member commented that I was brave. We are amazingly different in how we react to books. Characters I’ve loved, others have hated, and books, scenes, characters have had widely varying impact on my friends.
So I was relieved and pleased when they loved the book, embraced the women’s friendships and accepting love for each other. They cared about my characters who had lived full, sometimes difficult, lives. As I had hoped, they read the ingredient sections according to their own wishes, some straight through, some saving them for later, some a mixture. One finally figured out about chemistry in baking…another said it made her miss her friends and reminded her how important they are. One mentioned that reading the book was like attending a way-cool party.
But they were in a rare position. The novel is set in our hometown and they experienced the places portrayed in the book. They knew the setting was suggested by a cookie exchange I attend and that a few of the characters shared elements with friends or acquaintances. Mostly, they were in a unique place—they could ask an author-friend questions about a book set close to their own lives.
The first questions were about two items that were presented as facts. The initial one-- that if a baby dies in utero, the woman carries it to term-- seemed unbelievable to one member. I said, Yes, I’ve known that to happen to two women; another member also had knowledge of this. The second question was about a fact that is presented as truth. A character in my book states that 35% of people do not experience awe which may be partly genetically based. Are there fact checkers for fiction? There are consistency checkers, but you don’t have to prove the facts you state. However, if you’re wrong and your reader knows it, you loose your reader’s trust. This fact about awe was reported in an article on biological determinants of personality. It struck me, also, as so incredible that I have checked it out when it’s conversationally appropriate since then.
Several times during interviews, I’ve been asked if setting the novel in Ann Arbor with actual places and events changed it. My answer is no. I could have made up restaurants and parks and the novel, the story, the characters would have been the same. It is only we who have bought books and incense at Crazy Wisdom that are flooded with memories at the mention of the name, or we who have walked the trails of Gallup Park that visualize the graceful wood bridges and clusters of geese.
But I like that mix of truth, actual, real in the fiction. I’m a great fan of Doctorow who put Houdini and Goldman in Ragtime. And I love Capote who used fictive techniques in In Cold Blood. Both authors changed writing by blurring the line between fiction and truth.
Should they be?
Or is that the truth of human memory?
I know that sometimes our memory is wrong. When I wrote Infidelity, I made sure that my Mom really did make a speech at a conference in downtown Pittsburgh in the early 60s. I obtained a program of that conference and her name presenting the welcoming address was listed. And yet, my cousin told me that she had never smoked although, in the book, she smokes like a chimney. My memory was wrong.
Studies of memory indicate that it can be manipulated, particularly in children, by repeated questions so the mind makes up an account that embraces the questioner’s suggestions. And we have learned that witness identifications are notoriously unreliable. Our memory may play tricks on those who believe they were kidnapped by aliens, or are victims of satanic cults. The controversy about repressed memories brought this issue into sharp focus. Or conversely, we, or another, may embellish our role in an event and then we incorporate this enhanced role as truth.
And then there is the issue of point of view. A story and event look different depending on how you participate in it and may assume the mien of an entirely changed tale as so brilliantly depicted in the movie Rashomon where the victim, the murderer, the victim’s wife and a witness all present entirely dissimilar stories.
Our very brains take the snapshots captured by our eyes and string them into a film that turns Polaroid into a sensible movie.
We are story-loving creatures and the tales we form from the facts, events, views of our lives make them understandable and meaningful.
A novel, when it works, does the same. It carries us into a narrative dream in which we are able to experience another life, another’s view of the world. The perceived truth of that life, presented through unique details and resonating feelings, is the conduit. The writer must put in these ‘truths’ for the story to be believable enough to capture the reader.
Interesting, at that book club, we discussed another novel, too in which some of the plot elements involved magical realism. A cloud in the shape of a man walked on the tree-tops. Did this happen? Unlikely. But someone could view a cloud that way. A German American grandfather was incarcerated in a concentration camp with the Japanese. Did this happen? I didn’t know America also imprisoned German Americans during World War II. I could do research to find out. But I suspended disbelief, there was enough realism and consistency to keep myself in the writer’s hands and be buffeted by his story.
Does truth make fiction more believable? Does it enhance a gripping story? We writers will do anything to enhance a narrative dream, to make you the reader, fall into our story, fall in love with our characters and be swept into our world. That suspense of disbelief is what it is all about.
And so we cannibalize our very lives. I steal the habit of playing with a necklace from a beloved friend, now dead, and give it to a character. I hear a tune and remember a concert that becomes a setting for a scene. The bump on my grandmother’s finger, which I now have, and the amazing way my mother’s eyes reflected yellow bless a character. I do not even realize I’m doing it as my brain picks up these long ago sights, smells, sounds and stirs them, mixing them up with fantasy and theme in the scene I’m trying so hard to capture and portray before it stops playing out before my eyes to share my experience with you.
Sometimes we stumble on a truth when we think we’re in fiction. My first book, which was a nonfiction book, was written with two other therapists. We invented a dream for a fictional case study; the interpretation of the dream elucidated a psychological principle. Two hours later, a patient walked into my office and told me the same dream. She dreamed the dream we invented! But the meaning of my real patient’s dream was very different than our fictional character’s. Several times, I’ve stumbled on a truth I could not have known. And of course I wonder and am amazed at how this happens. Like psychics, do writers pick up clues that are so subtle they’re unaware of them? Does the line between truth and fiction waver rather than stand firm. If our own memories are wrong, how do we answer?
Are we writing about universal experience (no matter how much we try to particularize it) so much so often we inevitably hit on “a truth.” And then we hear, “That happened to me, how did you know?”
We made it up.
In some cases the truth is accidental.
Has that ever happened to you? Where you ‘knew something’ you could not have known?
Thanks to Ms. Pearlman for taking time from her busy schedule to write this guest post! Make sure you have your cookie recipes ready for tomorrow so you enter to win a copy of THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE CLUB or a CHRISTMAS COOKIE CLUB Prize Pack.