Tag Archives: Saul Bellow

Writing About Yourself in Fiction: Right or Wrong?

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s outstanding 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. Some reviewers speculated the novel was autobiographical, as it focused on Eugenides’s hometown of Detroit and his Greek heritage, but it was not. ”I wanted to write about hermaphroditism,” Eugenides said in an interview with The New York Times. ”But hermaphroditism led to classicism, classicism led to Hellenism, Hellenism to my Uncle Pete. I didn’t set out to write a Greek-American novel. I used the history because it served my story.”

Eugenides is not alone. Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, featured parallels with his life growing up in Chicago. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle are other examples, though they are closer to memoir. Ernest Hemingway’s fiction often alluded to his life experiences.

Writers often draw on their own life experiences in their stories. There is a temptation among novice writers to base their first novel entirely on their own lives. There’s nothing wrong with using your own experiences as a springboard or gleaning traits from real-life characters to breathe life into your fictional characters.

Personally, I feel uncomfortable writing about my own life. First, it’s just not that interesting. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a wonderful life (channeling George Bailey), rich in meaningful experiences, friendships, and joys. My life is fine. It’s just not the stuff of fiction. Second, I believe it’s an invasion of my family and friends’ privacy to use them in a work of fiction.

Clearly, though, writers create their fictional worlds through the prism of their experiences. Write what you know. We’ve all heard that one before. The truth is we all know a lot more than we think we do. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be in a high-speed chase, but I’ve been a passenger in a car going too fast for comfort. I don’t know what it’s like to undergo brain surgery, but I do know what it’s like to go under the knife.

My first novel, Small Change, was not based in any way on my life. None of the things that happened to the main character, John Sykowski, ever happened to me. However, reflecting on the book, I realized the main character embodied many of my adolescent hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties. No, John was not me. I was probably a mix of John and his carefree younger brother, Paul. At some level, writers infuse their characters with their own world view and perspective.

Writing a fictional story based on your life doesn’t strike me as a good idea, unless you are willing to change the facts to protect your family and friends. Here are a few tips for how you can draw on your rich life’s experiences in fiction:

  • Take the most interesting person you know (okay, not the Dos Equis guy) and redraw him in a way that is unrecognizable. If the person is a woman, write a male character with the same traits. If the person is a doctor, make him a lawyer. You get the idea.
  • Rewrite a dramatic event in your life by having it happen in a different way. Let’s say you were robbed at gunpoint and feared for your life. How about changing it up so your character is beaten senseless. If you were in a car accident, turn it into a boating accident.
  • If you were mistreated or had your heart broken in a relationship, change the gender of the abuser and alter the facts and events.

You get the picture. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all drink from the wellspring of our own experiences for inspiration and story ideas. That’s fine, as long you don’t compose a note-for-note duplication of your life. After all, as my character said in Small Change, a cover version of a song is never as good as the original.

How much of your own experiences do you use in your fiction writing?

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Who Are Your Favorite Authors?

A blogger recently posed the question, “Who are your favorite authors?” It’s not an easy one to answer. Tastes can change as readers are exposed to different authors. J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, kindled my interest in literature. I was a teen-ager when I read it the first time. Until then I read mostly sports biographies: The Mickey Mantle Story as told to (insert name of author), The Phil Rizzuto Story as told to…These books could hardly be considered literature, though with the rose-colored treatment these athletics received, they could well be classified as fiction.

In my 20’s I discovered the work of John Updike, Philip Roth and, later, Saul Bellow—three of the most gifted and prolific writers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. In the 1980s, after watching the movie, The Accidental Tourist, I read the novel on which it was based. I was hooked on Anne Tyler’s work. She has become one of my favorite authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. I was drawn not only to the excellent writing and craftsmanship, but also the subject matter. Stories about family dynamics have always intrigued and fascinated me. The family is the basic social unit. Everybody starts out life as a member of a family. These writers explored the complex relationships and frailties of families in an original and authentic way.

When I began writing fiction in earnest in the mid-1990s, I gravitated toward family sagas. I felt at home writing in that genre. Though I prefer reading family sagas, I believe it’s important for writers to read widely among all genres. I also believe fiction writers should read non-fiction books on a regular basis. Nonfiction can be a good source of research for novels, but it also informs and enlightens the reader about the issues of the day.

Today, I read an eclectic list of authors, including Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Jennifer Haigh, Richard Ford, Sue Miller, Anita Shreve, and Richard Russo, among many others. I enjoy discovering new writers, including self-published authors.

Reading is a continual source of joy and fulfillment. It will enrich your life.

Who are your favorite authors?

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Unfinished Novels: When to Pull the Plug?

It’s one thing for a novice writer to abandon a novel. I have two unfinished works that will never see the light of day. It’s another for a writer of Michael Chabon’s prodigious talent to leave a novel unfinished. That was the case with Fountain City, which Chabon abandoned in 1992 after five years.

Chabon began writing Fountain City as a follow-up to his fine 1989 debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The story centered on an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball stadium. After five years, he gave up on the project and then reportedly wrote Wonder Boys in seven months.

As this article in The New York Times points out, Chabon is not alone. It may surprise you to learn that other writers who abandoned novels include Harper Lee, Truman Capote, John Updike, Jennifer Egan, and Saul Bellow, among other famous authors.

Chabon revealed his emotional state during the writing of Fountain City when he published the first four chapters with annotations in McSweeneys 36. “Often when I sat down to work,” he wrote in his introduction, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

He also wrote in the margins of Fountain City: “A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.” It was a novel, he added, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”

Chabon elaborated on his reasons for not finishing the novel in an interview with The Atlantic monthly.

One of the greatest benefits is that Fountain City allowed Chabon to write his next novel, Wonder Boys. “Well, it’s pretty hard to imagine that I could have written, or would have been moved to write Wonder Boys without having gone through Fountain City,” he said. “And I stole the greenhouse in that subsequent book clean out of FC. The only part of it I was ever able to salvage.”

Andromeda Romano-Lax discussed unfinished novels, citing her personal experiences among others, in this Huffington Post piece.

Between her first and second published novels, she wrote a different novel and several partial manuscripts. “They weren’t rejected by a publisher,” she wrote. “They didn’t get that far. My first agent—with my own harsh internal censor as Kevorkian accomplice—pulled the plug.”

Romano-Lax mentioned both Chabon’s futile novel and the tortuous experience of Mark Salzman, who was unable to finish his novel and wrote about it in a short book called, The Man in the Empty Boat.

How does a writer know when to abandon a novel in progress? The easy answer is when the writer has exhausted all efforts and the story still isn’t working. That’s not the whole answer. I suspect the real test is when the writer has poured every ounce of energy into the project and just doesn’t feel the passion. That’s the sure sign to give up: the writer lacks enthusiasm for the work. If the writer cannot get excited about a story, there’s no way the reader will.

How do you know when to pull the plug on a novel that’s not working?

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Author Spotlight: Richard Ford

It’s rare when a reader comes across a protagonist who seems to speak directly to him. For me, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, the main character of his trilogy of novels, was such a character. Perhaps it’s because Frank was a middle-aged male who did a lot of thinking about the world, his connections to the people in it, his emotional state, and the right way to live.

Ford is best known for his three novels that feature Bascombe: The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. Bascombe is the embodiment of the rootless, restless, middle-aged male—a character who evokes those of John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom from the Rabbit series), Saul Bellow (Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift) and Phillip Roth (American Pastoral).

In The Sportswriter, Bascombe’s marriage falls apart after the death of his son, one of three children of he and his wife, Anne, referred to as X in the first novel. The story takes place over Thanksgiving weekend. Frank is visiting the family of the woman he is dating and has arranged an interview with a former Detroit Lions football player who was paralyzed during a game—an interview that is as disastrous as it is hilarious. Much of the novel—and the sequels—take place in Bascombe’s head. He is a man who seems to crave the security of a marriage and family, and yet he finds himself out on his own, trying in his own way to maintain some semblance of a relationship with his ex-wife, son and daughter.

Imbued with an intense introspective quality, Frank looks for meaning in the ordinary routines of daily life. Having suffered the unimaginable horror of losing a son and a marriage, Frank avoids emotional entanglements. After writing an acclaimed first novel, Frank finds he cannot write fiction and becomes a sportswriter. Ford wrote fiction before turning to a career as a sportswriter for the short-lived Inside Sports magazine.

In Independence Day, Frank tries to connect with his emotionally fragile son, Paul, by taking him on a Fourth of July weekend tour of the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame, a trip that starts with the best intentions and ends in utter disaster. A related subplot focuses on Frank’s new career as a real estate agent, a well-chosen profession as it underscores how people’s hopes and dreams are often bound up in the homes they buy.

The Lay of the Land finds Frank somewhat more at peace with himself. Still selling real estate, Frank is in a committed relationship and he is attempting to make up for lost time with his daughter, Clarice, who we learn is a lesbian. In the third book, Frank seems to have learned how to get over the things he has lost in his life. As Ford once said, “The art of living your life has a lot to do with getting over loss. The less the past haunts you, the better.” With Frank no doubt in his mind, Ford observed, “Life is the thing that happens…a sort of acceptance that is not incompatible with aspiration, or self-knowledge, or joy. Frank wants to fail less often, even at the expense of trying less hard, and that seems to me a philosophy of life that a person could actually live.”

Ford has a singular devotion to his craft. He once said, ”A lot of people could be novelists,” he says, “‘if they were willing to devote their lives to their own responses to things.”

A native of Mississippi, Ford received his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California, Irvine, where one of his professors was E.L. Doctorow. His first published novel was A Piece of My Heart, which he followed with The Ultimate Good Luck.

Ford’s newest novel, Canada, will be published in June. I can’t wait to read it.

 

 

 

 

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