Like so many of the dusty, venerable clichés about writing, one of the most stalwart, “To write what you know,” is sharply double-edged when it comes to fiction.
Here’s the problem: If all you write is a transcription of what you know, however moving or harrowing, you’re not going to come up with something that has verve or magic or that extra boost that is the sine qua non of fiction and that separates it from creative nonfiction, or even heartfelt journalism.
However, if in fear of staying too close to the nonfiction reportage, as it were, of what you know and experienced—if you filter or transform or invent too much—there’s a danger of creating something that loses the emotional heart of your story.
In writing The Book of Norman I found this a particularly nettlesome problem to negotiate. In my first of what have to have been seven drafts of the novel, which I began writing that many years ago, I have two brothers and their families gathered at a house they are jointly renting on Cape Cod for a week in the summer. There one evening, shortly after the families watch a Masterpiece Theater version of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda on TV, out comes one brother, the Mormon convert, brandishing a piece of paper and asks the still-Jewish brother to look it over. The paper turns out to be an ordinance, an important Mormon document usually requiring a blood relative’s signature or okay to initiate the proxy baptism of the dead.
Well, that interchange pretty much happened in our real lives together in that summer house. I remember, writing that first draft, I was still seething with emotion. I was (am) the Jewish brother, and my Mormon older brother who had converted in our twenties, several decades before, was the presenter of the ordinance.
We had a huge blowup, our children had to restrain voices, and, like a kid having a tantrum, I had to have my daughter and wife sit beside me in the bedroom where I felt my heart beating double-time as I raged for hours. All that entered the draft as well, powerful for me to write at the time because it was raw.
After fifty pages of my first draft, a story too close to the actual events except for silly name changes, I knew I was in trouble. It didn’t feel quite right, but I thought I could write my way out. So I kept writing for another twenty or thirty pages. At close to a hundred pages I ran out of gas. After I had more or less transcribed the events, my characters had nothing else to do. I had created them, or rather non-created them, so close to the bone of what actually had occurred, they did not have sufficient life to make choices, to go in directions that I could not anticipate. Another old writing saw became true again: Follow the characters, back off, let them lead.
Here’s the thing: If you don’t create characters with sufficient life of their own, they are going to die on the page. One of the harder things to learn is to recognize they are dying and let them go, take a deep breath, have a beer, meditate, wait some time, and go at it again.
When I did, some months later, I resolved to keep the struggle over a dead father, the emotional heart of the story, but I now knew I should insert some changes that by their nature would force true fictionalization. In my first draft, the two characters were in age just like me and my brother, I younger and he older. This time I rendered myself older, and allegedly wiser, and this made the character begin to operate more independently.
A second critical change was that I yanked the events out of the present of the actual incident and catapulted them way back into the past, in the late 1960s, roughly around the time of my brother’s conversion. That of necessity also prompted fictionalization; because I remembered little, I had to invent much.
I also deliberately created a fantasy mother. My real mom was a shy, self-effacing temple lady who went to the oneg Shabbats and swiped a lot of the brownies and danishes and other goodies to bring home to us. She rarely wore makeup. She was sweet but frowsy, very far from the independent, witty, film noir-esque deli waitress I made her in the novel. Like a true character, she started to do things that I never planned, like organize one of my favorite scenes in the novel, the Sabbath dinner.
When the characters surprise, you are on the right track, but you’re there because you’ve deliberately inserted devices to remove the story from its factual origin while retaining the emotional heart. That’s one of the true magic tricks of fiction. It doesn’t guarantee a great story, but it does guarantee story, which is the fundamental job of a fiction writer to create. It also is important, in such delicate matters as religion, conversion, and love, to have this distance if you’re sensitive to those whose encounters with you are the source of the material.
At this writing I have not yet heard how my brother or other members of his family, all still devout Mormons, responded to The Book of Norman. I hope they’ll like it and tell me so. Even better, I hope my brother will say he likes the story and add “But that didn’t happen.”
Allan Appel, born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, is a prize-winning novelist and playwright whose books include The Book of Norman,Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, winner of a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.