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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

You’ve seen the movie posters that say Based on a True Story. The smallest amount of research often reveals that the movie is only very loosely based on the vague outline of an actual event that occurred. It’s the way of things. Fiction illuminates the human experience in a way that documentary cannot always do, and so even the best fictionalization of a true story has to take certain liberties to craft a meaningful narrative.

Take the tragic story of Steven Stayner. They made a TV movie about his amazing survival and escape from 7 years of abuse at the hands of the pedophile who abducted him. It was a mostly true adaptation with Steven serving as an advisor. The narrative arc is Steven’s bravery and heroism in finally fleeing his captor in order to save another child from the same fate. Nine years later he died in a random traffic accident, and a decade after his death, his older brother was revealed to be a serial killer. That’s how real life refuses to follow good storytelling practices.

On the other hand, books and media are often touted as Based on a True Story, when at most, they’ve brushed shoulders with a true story on a crowded bus. When fiction is so often necessary to craft a satisfactory arc, what is the attraction of claiming a story is true when it’s at most inspired by actual events? That’s where marketing comes into play. Just as reality TV has become an unholy hot property, so has the “true story” imprimatur become a sales tactic for publishers.

No surprise then that writers respond to readers’ lust for true stories by producing books that they claim are memoirs but are in fact mostly fiction. James Frey was famously outed and publicly shamed for selling his novel as a memoir. People sued and had their money refunded, such was the depth of their sense of betrayal on learning that Frey’s book wasn’t absolute truth. Or even partial truth. I wish I knew someone who’d applied to have their book purchase refunded, because I’d love to hear why.

I consider this now as I continue to try to find a publishing home for a novel that borrows a great deal of inspiration from my own life. Several people have suggested that I might be more likely to sell the book if I played up the autobiographical aspects of it. The thinking seems to be that publishers and readers might be too uncomfortable to read fictional accounts of drug-dealing fathers and romantic relationships between little girls and dangerous men. However, under the broad cloak of Based on a True Story, people would be okay with such uneasy subjects.

For example, informal polling suggests that people who might cringe at reading those old incest classics of V.C. Andrews would feel comfortable reading a “true story” of incest. As a result, readers will snap up books that are touted as based on real events instead of being “merely” fiction. If it’s a true story, you’re reading for edification. If it’s fiction, you’re reading for titillation. Do you agree with that? Are you more likely to read a non-fiction book that has the same basic premise as a novel? Why is that?

I’ve recently discovered that readers are even eager to suss out a novel’s minor details that are drawn from a writer’s life. When people learn that I used to work as a church secretary, they want to know if Olivia, a character in Lie Lay Lain, is me. The answer is no, but certainly a number of the details about Olivia’s experience as a church secretary were inspired by things that happened to me. Conversely, many of my true church stories had to be left out, because they were simply too outrageous for a novel.

It’s the same case with the book I’m still trying to sell. Was my father a drug dealer? Yes. Did he look like Bo Duke and end up murdered? No, he’s alive and mostly reformed in Texas. Was I in a romantic relationship with a much older man when I was just a child? Yes. Did we end up married? No. You see, how stories are woven out of true facts and fiction?

So how true is Based on a True Story? It depends, I suppose on what sort of truth you’re looking for. My guess is that nearly every novel contains a certain amount of true story. All of my novels hold snapshots of my life. Images of things I’ve seen. Snippets of conversation. Parts of people I’ve known. Parts of myself even. That is true.

Also, the offer still stands. If you purchase an advance copy of Lie Lay Lain direct from Stairway Press in December, I will personally send you a guaranteed homemade (but not necessarily guaranteed pretty) holiday card and a signed book plate.

Stairway-Press-2013-Holiday-Promo-AD

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In the context of our current cultural attitudes, it sounds creepy to talk about little girls and romance, but the truth is that little girls like romance.  Not your standard, adult romance, with flowers and champagne.  Romance for little girls is often dark, scary, snatched out of the teeth of death.  Fairy tales are full of it: young girls being alternately wooed and terrorized by men they fear and/or long for. Take your pick: Beauty and the Beast, The Seven Swan Brothers, The Little Mermaid, who felt as though she walked upon knives, all for the love of a man. Pair them easily, not with the sugar-coated Disney versions, but with movies like Labyrinth, where a mysterious man offers dancing, jewels, glittering admiration, oh, but at a cost.

A pall of sexuality hangs over little girls, threatening and bizarre. You know that it does. Even if you want to look away, it’s there when you’re not looking.  I don’t believe the threatening nature of sex ever dissipates; it’s just that as little girls grow up, we acclimate ourselves to its dark nature.  We learn to avert our eyes and open our legs.

City of Lost Children

City of Lost Children

If you’re curious, I’ll add another movie to your roster of romantic films for little girls: The City of Lost Children.  I’m sure many people won’t approve of me thinking this is a children’s movie, just as people were horrified by my suggestion that Pan’s Labyrinth would be suitable for a certain kind of child. The things is, I remember how dark childhood was, how unsatisfied I was with saccharine family movies, how false they were.  I loved movies like Labyrinth, Legend, and The Dark Crystal, but often wished they were darker, more romantic.

The City of Lost Children, oddly enough, is the sort of movie I longed for at the age of ten.  Directed by Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (the twisted pair that brought you Delicatessen), it often gets described as having a convoluted plot, even an impenetrable plot.  This is only true if you try to watch the movie in an adult frame of mind, if you grasp at all the random threads and try to tie them up into some macramé whole. Use your child mind and the plot is really quite simple.

Man loses his brother.  Man meets girl.   Girl helps him.  Girl dies.   Man is heartbroken, but wait!  Girl isn’t dead.  Reunion.   Man and Girl fall in love, form a family, save his brother.

All the other stuff is stage dressing: mad scientist, clones, a brain in a fish tank, evil conjoined twins, child pickpockets, stolen dreams, Santa Claus nightmares.  Fascinating, bizarre stage dressing, but not essential to the basic plot.

Miette and One

Miette and One

If “Man and Girl fall in love” disturbs you, ask yourself, “What are little girls looking for?”  Especially little girls who are fatherless.   The girl in the movie, Miette, is an orphan, but in this day and age, even girls who aren’t orphans are fatherless.   It affects their lives in myriad ways, but most importantly in the way they choose the men they love.  When she meets a circus strongman, named One, who is often simply referred to as “the big moron,” there is an immediate connection.  He needs her help, but why does she offer it?

It’s as simple as desire.  She desires him.   She desires what he represents: strength, gentleness, a big man crying over a lost little boy.   Who has cried over her?  If he is a man-child, enormous but not terribly bright or sophisticated, she is certainly a girl-woman, old before her time and jaded.

Perfect Man

Perfect Man

What makes it so romantic is that the movie doesn’t shy from it.   It doesn’t place a paternal Hollywood distance between the two mismatched characters, but dares to show a physical intimacy between them that is both childlike and portentous of adult physicality.   It dares to show a thing you’ll hardly see between two adults in a Hollywood film–a man giving a woman a foot massage.  Hovering in the periphery are further suggestions: during a visit to a tattoo parlor (seeking a map), One gets a tattoo of a heart reading “Miette pour la vie.”  Miette forever.  The sort of tattoo a sailor gets for his sweetheart.  As One rubs her feet, she asks what he plans to do after he finds his brother.  A job, he answers.  A house.  A wife What kind of wife? she asks. There is plenty of time, he assures her, to figure that out.  Plenty of time for her to grow up into that wife.

Radiateur

Radiateur

Miette is a dark-haired girl in a red dress, and after her alleged death, One goes on a drinking binge with a dark-haired prostitute in a red dress–an adult Miette.  When the real Miette arrives, she is alive but sour with jealousy.  On the darker side, when One turns against Miette and tries to kill her (this is part of the elaborate plot, with fleas armed with a brutal potion that produces violence at the sound of an organ box grinder), the violence has the quality of a wedding night deflowering.  One doesn’t want to hurt her, but he has to, is driven to it by a force he can’t control.  Miette simply accepts it, as though she expects such a thing or deserves it.  After one particularly visceral slap across the face, she gets up, crying, and waits to receive another.  When he begins to choke her, she hardly resists.

Ultimately, of course, he will save her.  She will save him.  Together they will rescue the little brother and be a family.  That’s what little girls want.

Happy Ending

Happy Ending

(As an aside, let me note that one of my favorite actors, Ron Perlman, plays the strongman One. His French is serviceable, any deficiencies in pronunciation nicely hidden under a Russian accent. The little girl playing opposite him is Judith Vittet, 9 at the time of filming, and she’s charming, cynical, broken, and strong by turns.)

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In real life, we’ve gone full circle from people being named for their occupations, to names being hereditary, to people once again choosing their names to suit their occupation or personality.  (Or perceived personality.  Among the droves of modern witches calling themselves Morgana, I suspect there are only a few who are truly suited to the name.)

Once I even came across a surname that seemed suited to the modern era’s more common places of employment, fast food restaurants.  The name: Sackburger.
In fiction, it’s gone out of fashion to name characters after aspects of their personalities.  For the most part, modern readers frown on characters with names that are a bit too “spot-on.”  Not many writers could get away with naming a character prone to misusing language Mrs. Malaprop these days.

That’s what makes real-life instances of these names even more delightful.  Take Bernard Madoff, who’s recently been uncovered as the man behind a decade-long Ponzi scheme.  Madoff, as in “There, Officer, that’s the man who made off with my life savings.”

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