Monday, January 17, 2011

Pants on Fire?

At one of my readings, a young man asked if I agreed with the statement that all novelists are liars. My immediate response, perhaps to play the part of the incorrigibly rascally raconteur, was, "Of course!"

But I lied. I don't think that novelists are liars. Maybe at book readings *cough cough* but not in their writing. On the contrary, I believe the best fiction writers are truth tellers. They just try to get at a truth by making stuff up.

A few weeks later, a different reader referred to the chapter in Bill Warrington's Last Chance that recounts the sexual history of one of the characters, Mike."You obviously have had many sexual partners to write about it so convincingly," the reader said. I almost burst out laughing. Fewer scenes in the book required more of my imagination.

I've also answered the how-much-of-this-is-true question by insisting that there is nothing autobiographical in the book. And yet... I set the story in Woodlake, Ohio. I grew up in Lakewood, Ohio. (Not clever, I admit... but fun.) The family matriarch died of cancer when she was a young mother.My real-life mother died of cancer at a young age. The made-up Bill Warrington  is based on a not-made-up neighbor I came to like and admire before he passed away. He didn't suffer from dementia, but he had the Bill Warrington attitude in spades.

So... what do you think? Is there such a thing as pure fiction? Does it matter? And what was your most recent truthful lie?


  1. my books are all lies.

    *backs away from the comment thread.*

    (I love this discussion, Jim. I'll be back. Maybe.)

  2. Are you writing or lying about:
    a) your books being lies
    b) there being a discussion
    c) your loving this discussion
    d) returning


  3. I think the line between truth and made-up stuff (made-up stuff being very different from lies) has always been fuzzy. Fiction is made-up stuff that contains a kernel of truth. If readers can't find that kernel of truth, they probably won't enjoy the story.

    And fiction is an art form, just like sculpting. Is a sculpture "truth?" Probably not. So why put so much pressure on fiction writers?

    /incoherent rant. :)

  4. How much of what is true (vs. 'truth') is in your fiction, PJ? And how strongly do you rely on the true to make stuff up?

    Seems like we disguise the true with made-up stuff to get at the truth.

    Then again, I'd by lying if I said I had the slightest idea of what I'm talking about.

  5. If I only wrote about stuff that actually happened to me, my stuff would be boring indeed. (It might be boring anyway, but that's another problem.)

    But let's just say that "not true" doesn't necessarily equal "lie."