Please welcome today's guest blogger, debut author Boris Fishman, to the Book Club Girl blog! His novel, A Replacement Life, is on sale tomorrow. Boris makes his literary debut with this provocative, soulful, and sometimes hilarious story of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: Forge Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York.
A: How much of this is autobiographical?
Why do people ask? I know why I do, when reading a book whose broad strokes parallel the author’s experience: If the author was helped out by real life, I don’t have to feel so envious of his achievement! (I am not implying this is what motivates the people who ask me – I am speaking only of my own fragile writer’s ego. Though it’s iron next to Gore Vidal’s position: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”)
Unfortunately, however, I must open my grateful, desperate clutch and let go of the idea that autobiography helps. Now I have written a novel “with autobiographical elements,” and I can tell you that there’s nothing wheel-greasing about it. In fact, just the opposite. Autobiography isn’t a confederate feeding you inside information; it’s a friend looking to betray you. (My novel, A Replacement Life, out from HarperCollins June 3, is about a failed young journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russians in Brooklyn. That part, let me be clear, is invented. And I don’t think I failed too badly as a young journalist. But I was a young journalist, my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and, as the person with the best English in the family – we had emigrated from the Soviet Union just years before – her restitution paperwork was handed to me.)
First of all, the way things “happened in real life” has about as much relationship to what works on the page as a block of stone does to a sculpture at the Met. A transcript of real life has plenty of propulsion, rhythm, and character – only it’s all buried in interminable stretches of leaden inconsequence. Fiction is real life severely edited – the facts warped and distilled. If you’re inventing from scratch, you don’t have to ask yourself what to edit out and what to punch up – you make it from scratch. But if you’re sifting through things that “actually happened”? Confusing, nasty business.
And if it happened to you, you’re just about the worst person in the world to decide what of it will be newsworthy to others; what requires clarification and where it feels superfluous; finally, how to tell the story. As an insider, you are disproportionately moved by things that really won’t be very moving to others; inadequately touched by those that will. A writer’s first mission is to observe; and an observer’s first mandate is: Be on the outside, looking in.
This is why the common perception of memoirs as something anyone can sit down to do – “you just write down what happened” – feels so wrong. Too many memoirists give the genre a bad name by doing exactly that, but if we’re going to talk about the memoirs that will last – Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, for instance – you’re going to find in them a lot more that feels like a novel than like nonfiction: Narrative, stylistic distinction, character development. Except such books can’t be novels, as badly as they want to be! There are all those pesky facts standing in the way! All the compression and invention and composite portraiture that makes a narrative dramatically compelling is at an author’s disposal far more readily in a novel than in a memoir. Autobiography – the “truth” – is a prison. A little bit in a partly autobiographical novel, a lot so in a memoir.
Take a memoir I had in mind for some years. I grew up with an old-school alpha of a (maternal) grandfather and a decidedly non-alpha father. I found rescue from their (silent) crossfire in the novels of Jim Harrison, best known for the novella Legends of the Fall (far more artful than the schmaltzy movie, as good as it was). Jim’s male characters – unafraid of sophistication or feeling, also of a good fistfight – made more sense to me than either of the extremes I found at home. So at a particularly disoriented moment in my late twenties, I piled into a Ford Escape and went in search of Jim so he would tell me how to live. I found him, in Montana, where we spent a couple of days talking. Blueprint for a killer memoir, isn’t it? Unfortunately, that’s all it is – I didn’t take any notes on the trip. (The ultimate proof I didn’t go to get a book out of it.) If I was writing a novel, this would hardly be an impediment. For a memoir, it’s death. I can’t invent what happened with Jim – a public person – and I don’t recall it in the detail that good nonfiction demands.
In A Replacement Life, the character of Grandmother shares some history with mine, though one reason the young narrator agrees to invent stories of Holocaust suffering – so he can recreate on the page a grandmother he abandoned in real life when he fled his immigrant community – is invented. My grandfather didn’t ask me to forge Holocaust- restitution claims, but he shares much temperamentally with the character of Grandfather in the novel; all the same, every word Grandfather utters in the novel is invented. And so forth. Calibrating these proportions sometimes made me feel like one of those restaurateurs cantilevering a sprig of tarragon over an angel’s breath of tilapia foam. Perhaps this is why the novel took 12 drafts.
So, next time you hear somebody asked about the autobiographical origins of a novel, feel some empathy. There’s nothing to envy.