My Reading of Fictional Biographies

One of the ways writers make decisions is to read similar work by other authors.  I have recently begun to check out fictional biographies from Dayton’s three library systems, to see how other writers have handled some of the problems.  For example, how does the writer address the reader’s question, But how do I know what’s true here? 

Historical fiction and its subset, fictional biography, is a strange hybrid, and writers deal with it differently, usually by means of an author’s note, sometimes placed at the beginning, other times at the end.  I favor the beginning, but that’s likely my preference for being upfront about things in general.  In Max Phillips’ fictional biography of Alma Mahler, The Artist’s Wife, the note appears at the end.  In it, he confesses that he has strayed from the record at will, to his own ends.  The subject of the novel, and its point-of-view character–the profligate wife of Gustav Mahler whose particular passion was the conquest of geniuses–was merely the suggestion that set him off on a fictional journey?   I find myself unsettled by this confession, as if the only value in reading anything is to get at historical fact.

But I wouldn’t be a novelist if I believed that.  Truth, for me, is larger than fact, and fiction is particularly good at delivering the emotional truths that transcend facts.

That said, I’m not comfortable with borrowing an historical figure, then distorting known facts.  It’s a personal bias, I guess.  I’m delighted to discover that Jim Shepard–one of my mentors in the craft, though I’ve never met him–agrees.  In an essay called “Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact” contained in The Writer’s Notebook:  Craft Essays from Tin House, he says this:  “Literature that deals with history the most effectively, in my mind, . . . understands two things:  (A) that fiction about real events needs to respect the facts and (B), as our politicians have taught us, facts are malleable things.  The trick, it seems, is to do everything possible to honor A, as you understand it, while taking full advantage of B to shape your material into something aesthetically beautiful.” (p. 244)

What kind of distortion, then, might shaping the material bring?

Shaping might be best understood by looking at a painting such as Diego Rivera’s Flower Festival:  Feast of Santa Anita.   The central figure in this painting bears a heavy burden, a basket of calla lillies.  The shape of the figure, and particularly Rivera’s choice of white for his robe, makes it reminiscent of the cross of Christ.  The lilies themselves are shaped like hearts–and the stamen is exaggerated in a phallic way–a distortion introduced.  The children kneeling in the forefront, suggestive of worship, wear blouses with yokes that are also shaped like hearts.  Even the strands of hair in their braids are shaped like hearts, the braid image repeated in the binding on the basket.   The red flowers, poppies, look like mouths–or vaginas.  This painting, then, obstensibly about a figure at a flower festival, is really about love–both eros, and agape.

In literature, shape is delivered with a similar kind of repetition of an image.  In my novel about Darwin, the Sandwalk, a circular path on a bit of land rented from a neighbor, appears repeatedly in the novel as does the image of walking in circles, in general.  In the novel’s opening scene, Darwin’s daughter Henrietta is walking the fairy ring that has appeared in the lawn outside Darwin’s study window.  Now–here’s where the distortion comes in.  Yes, there really was a Sandwalk and Darwin walked it almost daily, assuming he was healthy enough. He called it his thinking path. But was there a fairy ring in the lawn outside his study window?  Who knows?  The fairy ring introduces an important concept in the novel–the relationship between what we can know (that a mushroom-like fungus causes the grass to darken in ring-like patterns) and the realm of the intangible–in this case, cavorting fairies who draw the unsuspecting into the ring to dance to their deaths.  It’s a metaphor for everything the book will tackle.  Is it a device?  Yes.  A useful one.  Is it fiction?  Yes.  Does it tamper with truth?  I don’t think so.

I don’t yet know what image will shape the Einstein novel, though it seems that a departing person–on a street or in a train station–keeps turning up in the text so far.   The working title of the novel is Quanta, because I’m writing in bursts/part(icles) that are not necessarily chronological.  Perhaps Departures would be a better title, suggesting all the personal abandonments that characterized his life and also his departure from current thought.

Time and many pages of writing must pass before I will know.

Flower Festival:  Feast at Santa Anita by Diego Rivera   a calla lily

About Nancy Pinard

Professionally-speaking, Nancy Pinard is an author-educator who spends her days writing, teaching, reading, and researching for her writing and teaching. She is the author of two published novels, Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup, and numerous short stories. She has taught the craft of fiction writing in many venues including Sinclair Community College, University of Dayton Life-Long Learning Institute, Antioch Writers' Workshop, Mad Anthony Writers' Workshop, and Molasses Pond Writers' Workshop. Personally, her faith is what sustains, inspires, and motivates her to continue to explore meaning through literature. "You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist." — Anton Chekov to Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
This entry was posted in Darwin, Diego Rivera, Einstein, Fictional biography, fictional truth, Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, historical fiction, Jim Shepard, Max Phillips, reading, The Artist's Wife, The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My Reading of Fictional Biographies

  1. I appreciate your approach to “the truth”..

  2. I’ve just finished and published my first novel which is indeed a fictional biography. It’s a no holds barred look at the wild, wild life of notorious Hollywood film producer Don Simpson.

    I went first person present tense because, well, he was a pretty in your face guy. Somehow it made it feel more real. I also dropped quotation marks, he saids, she saids, all that kind of thing to speed up the story.

    It’s a style I feel comfortable writing in. I call it true fiction.

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