I am so happy to welcome author Laura Brodie to Book Club Girl. Brodie is the author of the new novel The Widow's Season and a forthcoming memoir on her experience homeschooling her daughter for one year called Love in the Time of Homeschooling. I had the pleasure of meeting Laura a few weeks back and we talked about books, book clubs and writing. I told her how intrigued I was by writers who write both fiction and nonfiction, and that I wonder how they straddle those two very different and very real worlds. Out of that conversation came this essay and I love the insights that she offers here. Read an excerpt from The Widow's Season and check out the reading guide. Laura is available to call in to reading groups, and you can contact her to schedule a call here . I also have two copies of The Widow's Season to give away. To enter to win, post a comment about your thoughts reading memoir versus fiction. I'll choose 2 people randomly from all comments received by midnight, Saturday, September 5th (US and Canada only).
Tell All the Truth….Thoughts on Memoir and Fiction
There’s been much talk lately about the line between memoir and fiction. Since a good memoir includes many of the same elements as a novel—a lively story, vivid characters, and a strong narrative arc—readers wonder if memoirists often blur the boundary between fact and fabrication.
That question interests me because this year I am jumping into the book world with two titles in ten months—a novel and a memoir—so my mind has been shifting constantly between imagination and memory. When preparing my memoir I’ve tried to be especially conscientious, and now I find myself facing the opposite problem from too much fantasy. Turns out, I tend to be overly honest, whether writing memoir or fiction, which makes me wonder: when has an author revealed too much of the truth?
Take my debut novel, The Widow’s Season, published in June by Berkley Books. In part, this ghost story/marriage story was based on literary history. In my grad student days I became fascinated with seventeenth-century plays where husbands fake their deaths in order to spy on their wives. That voyeurism promised a great starting point for a novel.
But once I began writing, the story intersected with my life. My widowed protagonist is a part-time English professor (just like me), whose husband has apparently died in a kayaking accident that mirrors a close-call my husband survived. Her modern-day story occurs in my town, Lexington, Virginia, renamed “Jackson” because Stonewall Jackson is one of Lexington’s favorite sons. Also, my knowledge of widowhood derived from the experiences of my widowed mother.
All this personal material seemed like fair game. But when I read my finished manuscript, I suffered an attack of dread: several of my characters resembled Lexington residents. The ghostly husband in The Widow’s Season is a college doctor named David, a former Peace Corps volunteer. Here in Lexington, our wonderful college physician –David—once served with the Peace Corps. So I wondered: should I change my character’s name? Make him Bob or Stephen? And what about my widow’s English neighbor who teaches third grade? I happen to have an English neighbor who is now my youngest daughter’s fourth grade teacher. Should I change that character too, and make her a German librarian? Eventually I decided that my characters contained more fiction than fact, and so far I haven’t received any indignant phone calls or angry glances in the supermarket.
But now that I’m in the final stages of polishing a memoir, these worries have returned with added vigor. Love in a Time of Homeschooling describes one year when I gave my ten-year-old daughter, Julia, a break from her public school routine. Our goal was to do a lot of writing, reading and math while exploring the community around us, and the resulting story is filled with musicians and shopkeepers and teachers from our area. I changed all names except those of my immediate family , and I didn’t write negative comments about any individual. Still, I wonder how many Lexingtonians will cringe at glimpses of their lives in print? Above all, how will Julia feel about seeing her childhood experiences paraded in hardcover? Although she has read most of the manuscript, even Julia hasn’t vetted the final chapters. When offered, she passed them along, saying “Y’know Mom, I already know how it ends.”
I am comfortable revealing my own dark side, sharing the stormy maternal tantrums that I found could surface when trying to get a ten-year-old to concentrate on fractions. My memoir was not a cheery homeschool -your-way-to Harvard guide, but an honest tale of a mother and daughter’s educational ups and downs. As for all those other characters—my neighbors, my colleagues, my younger daughters—I wonder if they will feel comfortable when the book is published next spring?
These qualms might sound like cowardice, but I view them as the sensitivity to people’s lives that all memoirists must consider. The key difference between memoir and fiction lies in the writer’s obligation to other human beings. A memoirist should not have to ask: “Am I being truthful?” but “Am I being reasonably considerate of other people’s privacy?” Although ours is an age of exhibition, most people want to reserve the right to expose themselves, or not.
And so, for my next project I think I’ll immerse myself in a fictional tale far removed from my immediate acquaintance—a story set in the Shenandoah region I know best, but with characters who are strangers, still waiting to meet me.