I love this article in today’s Guardian by Linda Grant about the public’s need to believe that all fictional stories are somewhat based in fact. I understand her aggravation—though I don’t feel it quite so acutely—when readers automatically assume that ‘writing what you know’ means directly lifting stories from your own life.
At every reading I’ve ever been to, someone always asks the author “Where do you get your ideas?” This is often a thinly veiled way of asking, “Is the story true?” or “Are these characters based on real people?” I recently spoke to a reader who lived close to my hometown. She said she enjoyed the characters in my book, but because she didn’t live in my hometown she, in her words, “wasn’t able to connect the dots,” which I took to mean that she wasn’t able to figure out who I was writing about. Afterward, I started wondering if people in my hometown were also trying to “connect the dots”, and if so, how horrifying that would be. I have no interest in exposing the secrets of people I know or dressing them up to be unrecognizable. Just because I grew up in a small town and wrote a book about a small town, doesn’t make my work any less fictional.
There's no question that life informs a writer's work, but fiction writers are not interested in documenting their experiences. If we were, we would write memoirs or essays instead or simply become journalists. What we love is the act of creation, not disguise.