The art of good, and bad, memoir writing, and the interplay between fact and fabrication (by a fiction writer)!

'The real truth is that the past is a building burned-down, and all we writers can ever do is reconstruct it, with entirely different boards and bricks'

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The Independent Culture

I know I may be in the minority here, but I rarely enjoy conventional memoirs. To me, reading a memoir is like listening to someone at a dinner party preface the telling of a story with: “Everything I’m about to say is entirely true.”

As the person spoke, it would be utterly impossible for me not to play mental Supreme Court judge, mulling the veracity of every tiny detail, sniffing out every anachronism, questioning every lame-duck detail, tallying every time-line inconsistency, to the point that I wouldn’t be following the substance of story in the slightest.

This is why so many memoirs end on a kind of ‘But who can say?’-melancholic note, because the author, even after subjecting us to 300-odd pages of remembered ‘truth’, must obligatorily admit that we can never accurately represent the past, not with words or pictures or even a million video cameras aimed in every direction.

The real truth is that the past is a building burned-down, and all we writers can ever do is reconstruct it, with entirely different boards and bricks.

My distaste for memoirs aside, when I set out to write my first novel, If I Fall, If I Die, I found my imagination locked in the orbit of subjects closely related to me personally. My mother was agoraphobic while I was growing up, and (surprise-surprise!), I was taking extensive notes on a fictional agoraphobic named Diane, who was about my mother’s age, and even looked a little like her. I was also a sponsored skateboarder for a portion of my life, and (surprise-surprise!) the woman had a son who became obsessed with skateboarding - to Diane’s (and my mom’s) abject horror - at the age of 11. Still, I never once considered calling what I was working on a memoir. Maybe it’s because this was too painful for me to admit that I was writing about my mother, who had recently died of cancer, or that I was taking stock of my childhood, the outcome of which (what you could call my misspent adulthood) was in disrepair.

But through the novel, I was able to approach these subjects sideways, with no moral obligation to anything or anyone but the story. To simply tell it as I needed to tell it. Like that storyteller at the dinner party, I actually don’t care where the story took place, or whether this account is entirely true, I only care whether I enjoy it, whether it says something true about the teller, or about people in general. Writing a novel allowed me to say to myself: “I may not get the facts right, but the facts are secondary. It’s details and feelings and interconnections that last.”

Now leading up to the launch of the novel, I’ve been speaking a great deal to people about the personal resonances in my novel. In interviews I’ve watched interviewers, after getting the boring stuff out of the way, sneak up on these particular details like camouflaged hunters, not wanting to spook their prey and make me bolt. I’ve watched relief spread over them when I broached this personal territory without prickliness and gave up the interview goods.

But who can blame them for their trepidation? There was a time when writers would get very testy about this stuff. I remember as a kid watching Margaret Atwood on the CBC as she spit-roasted a defenseless interviewer who dared to ask if there were any personal resonances in her novel, Surfacing. I watched it again recently, and couldn’t help but pity the interviewer, as though Atwood had set a complex intellectual trap by writing the book, and then sprung it on this poor woman, who had clearly enjoyed it and admired the writer to no end, on national television. Though I can understand Atwood’s position of wanting her work to be appraised on its own merit (which is extensive - because of course she’s a bona fide genius), but to be fair, isn’t this truth-fiction interplay stuff what everyone is actually thinking about while they’re reading any novel? “How does this person know this subject so well?” “What is at stake here for the writer personally?” “What will their family think!?” These questions are as essential to the novel as: “How did the director get the money for this helicopter shot?” is to film, or “What does this paint splatter say about the artist’s tortured soul,” is to fine art. And to deny that this stuff is on the table when a person is reading your book is willfully ignorant at best, and kind of ludicrous at worst.

This interplay between fact and fabrication has been both acknowledged and mined to wondrous effect in recent novels like Sheila Heti’s insightful, pulse-taking How Should A Person Be?, and Ben Lerner’s brilliant and surreal 10:04. Perhaps it’s the effect of social media, or an increased cultural openness, but writers seem to be less private these days. Less guarded. Less prone to feelings of invasion. I’m not a big social media sharer myself, though I certainly don’t look down upon those who are. But I would never dream of upbraiding someone for asking the “elephant in the room” questions that I knowingly built into the very fabric of my book, a book they’ve taken the time out of their busy life to actually read.

Since it’s beginnings, the novel has survived by its omnivorousness. Its adaptability. Its gleeful mélange of truth and falsity. And I think it’s time for us all to acknowledge that every single novel ever written anywhere is personal. And that this constitutes much of why people are drawn to literary novels in the first place.  

So, reader who has just finished my book, I appreciate your question, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask it. And here is my answer: If I Fall, If I Die is the truth. It’s also lies. It’s my life. It’s not my life. It’s nothing. It’s everything. In short: it’s a novel.

And aren’t novels fun?

*Michael Christie's 'If I Fall, If I Die' is published by Heinemann (£12.99)