This is the second of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.
The writer Peter Ho Davies has published three novels, each set in radically different time and place. The first book, The Welsh Girl, is set in 1940s Wales, portraying the lives of people distant from and yet fully caught up in the war. Peter is from Wales, but wasn’t born until the 1960s, and never served in a POW camp or a tavern. The second book, The Fortunes, is four different stories of what it means to be Chinese American, as seen through four different characters: a housekeeper/railroad worker of the 1860s, an actress of the 1920s, a Detroiter of the 1980s, and a couple traveling to China to adopt a baby in the 2010s. Peter is partially of Chinese ethnicity, moved to the US thirty years ago, and so has some grounding to explore Chinese American identity, but he never laid track nor acted in a movie nor saw his friend beaten to death in a parking lot nor adopted a child.
His third book, though, is different from those two. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, a domestic drama of a couple making decisions about parenthood, stands upon that contemporary ground of autofiction, a story in which the storyteller and author are difficult or impossible to distinguish. Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Is there a meaningful difference between those two?
Our dinky little town is oversupplied with marvelous writers. We have a friend who’s spent a decade investigating the lives of Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner for an epic novel about our continual responsibility in moving closer to war or to peace. We have a friend whose career has included several books about lives of women in the American frontier West. And of course, Nora continues her investigations about one particular 19th-century family of Quaker settlers in western Vermont, and about the ways that faith and community and distant powers all shaped their lives and their work.
Nobody ever asks them whether some character in their book is “really” their partner, or their neighbor. They have the freedom to write without the presumption that they’re engaged in shadow memoir.
My work is a little different than that.
A couple of days ago at dinner, a friend said, “You don’t have to tell me, but did that town in Michigan really get taken over by the mine?” Well, no, The City Killers is a novel. And I’m glad that it feels real enough that people are worried about the fate of Warrington Heights, but Warrington Heights does not exist. Places quite a lot like it do, of course, small industrial cities gutted by capital flight and divided by racial history. And the State of Michigan does have a questionably-legal emergency management plan in which the State is empowered take over the operation of local governments (Flint, for example). But The City Killers is a wholly fictional story, informed by my experiences of similar places.
Even closer, Nora tells me that a friend who’d read Trailing Spouse identified it as a story in its spirit about Nora and I. Well, no. It’s a story about a young man with a failed career who followed his wife’s college job to Vermont. The fact that it’s set in Vermont makes it local, and the fact that Nora and I used to be in academia makes it ground I know how to walk, but it isn’t our story. (We’ll talk in more detail about that specific issue tomorrow.)
My books are thematically tied. They’re about men. Specifically, they’re about young men who find themselves stuck, not where they’d intended to go but not having a strategy for moving forward. And some event provides them with an opening, but an opening that requires them to exercise their skills and good faith in new ways. A challenge that reveals unseen facets of their selves. They’re books about bravery—not battlefield bravery, but the emotional bravery that allows us to walk into a new relationship or an old family and make them stronger.
My books are spatially tied. They aren’t all set in the same place like the works of Donna Leon or Kent Haruf, but they’re all set in places I know well. The industrial Midwest. The High Plains. The Bay Area, and the Redwood Coast of Northern California. Rural Vermont. Places that I know well enough to do thick description, not merely of the physical landscapes but of the social and historical forces that shape them.
My books are vocationally tied. They’re about characters who do work with which I’m familiar. College teaching, academic research, half-assed government consulting, hospitality. Readers have told me how unusual it is for books to really get into the unseen details of workplaces, which is something that’s always fascinated me. So I bring that to the work as well.
So in their collective effort, I suppose that my fiction is autofiction. It’s close to home, even when it’s set three thousand miles or sixty years away.
One of the things we don’t tell aspiring writers is that our first work will always, only, be read by people who know us. Not merely our ever-patient partners, but by friends and neighbors. And that raises two related problems. One is that those readers are tempted to pick at the bandage, to look at some character and say, “Oh, I know who that really is!” And the other is that they start looking over their shoulder, saying “Wow, so that’s what he thinks of us…”
If I wrote about werewolves, or King Tut, we’d all be safer. If I set my stories in Argentina or Angola, we’d all be safer. But I don’t do those things. I write about everyday people who are called upon to be brave in familiar contexts. And that in itself is brave, I think. But I’ve prepared myself to do that, through months and months of creation, each book borne upon the years of emotional and craft training that have come before. Readers catch these books cold, and the draft of self-recognition can feel personal.
We think of our obligations to readers as being formal. We entertain them, we challenge them, we illuminate the world in new ways for them. But we don’t know them. We aren’t engaged in relationships with them beyond the bounds of those pages. The early writer, though, is only writing for readers with whom there’s already a relationship in place, and that’s ground that we rarely discuss. Do we hold back, out of an attempt at kindness? Do we write only about times and places that can’t possibly be interpreted as mirror?
Do we only write about medieval vampires?