Is There Such a Thing as Autobiographical Fiction
... and is it a good thing?

by Alec Clayton

Lew Hamburg reviewing Imprudent Zeal for The Olympian in 2005 called it “a tour de force of autobiographical fiction.”

I like that description but I could argue how autobiographical it is or if it is, if that’s a good thing or not.

There must be millions of wannabe writers out there who have never taken a writing class and have no experience in writing but who think their life experiences are unique—which they may very well be—and they write their stories either as autobiography or disguised as fiction. Like me, they tend to be self-published. The point being that there’s a huge difference in having a good story to tell and being able to tell it well.

There are also literary icons who sometimes walk a tightrope between fiction and non-fiction who have written autobiography that is as engaging as the best of fiction. A great example is Earnest Hemingway’s Paris is a Moveable Feast. It’s non-fiction but when I bought a copy many years ago it was in the fiction section of the bookstore. It differed from Hemingway’s novels only in that it happened to be true. Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place caused firestorms of protests from people who grew up in the writers’ home towns because they recognized themselves in fictitious characters.

Despite some of the greats like Hemingway and Wolfe and the hundreds of other novelists who have drawn from their own life experiences, there’s enough really bad autobiographical fiction to stigmatize the genre (if I may call it a genre), and the stigmata has exploded now that we’ve entered the age of print-on-demand / anybody-can-be-a-published-author. So I had mixed feelings about Hamburg’s review of my novel. He did, however, say some really nice things that I still treasure.

Hamburg wrote: “This book is the great circus train wreck that was America from the 1950s to the 1990s. It moves not only in time, but also in space, from the Deep South to New York City and Seattle. This landscape is populated by artists, art gallery owners, possible saints and a prostitute redeemed by the love of a good man. Now there’s a bit of gender role reversal. Characters are straight, gay and bisexual. Sex, drugs and the last taboo, creativity loom large in the tale. If this book had a soundtrack, it would be rock and roll played on a calliope.”

One of the major characters, Scully McDonald, is a recovered alcoholic who founded a service organization in New York City that provided meals and clothing and housing for poor people. Scully was based on an actual person named Jack Scully who did, in fact, found an organization by that name. And there was a guy who worked for him named Lane Felts whom Hamburg, who knew a little of my personal history, took to be me. The chapter on EFE was not fiction. Almost everything in that chapter happened just as written—only the names were changed to protect the innocent. The only fictitious element in that chapter was the relation between Lane and Scully’s daughter, McKenzie, which was 100-percent a product of my imagination.

I made no bones about that chapter being autobiographical; I even said so in the front section of the book. But that chapter is a tiny part of the book. Everything else is either made up or is such a blending of pure fiction with bits and pieces of people, places and events from my life that even I can’t sort it out. And from what I know of other writers that is pretty much true of every novelist. Even sci-fi and fantasy writers draw from their own experiences.

Assuming similarities between my experiences and other writers, it may be interesting to look at what’s true and what’s made-up in my novels.

Lane Felts was not based on an actual person, but he did things that I did. He grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, studied art at the University of Southern Mississippi, played drums in a country band and went to New York and worked at Everything for Everybody. That’s me to a T. But Lane’s relationship with Palmer Jackson is 100-percent imaginary. I’ve never known anyone remotely like Palmer.

Within the small chapter on Everything for Everybody, Scully McDonald’s actions and mannerisms are those of Jack Scully. But everything about him from childhood until he started EFE is a total invention. He was never a boxer, he didn’t go to Korea and witness his best friend being blown up by a land mine, and he didn’t see his wife and child killed in a freak accident. I made all of that up. Nor did he father a child with a prostitute, and that prostitute did not hitch-hike from New York to the West Coast and marry a soldier, and her daughter did not grow up to become an art dealer in Seattle, visit New York in search of her father  and fall in love with Lane Felts. I made all of that up.

Imprudent Zeal was my second novel. My first, Until the Dawn, was even less autobiographical. There is not a single character or event in it based on anyone I’ve ever known or anything I ever did. The settings, however, and the cultural milieu are totally based first on my childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, and later on life in Manhattan in the mid-1970s. The character Red Warner truly came to me almost whole with all his quirks in a moment’s inspiration. There’s a scene with him fishing on the Mary Walker Bayou near the Mississippi Gulf Coast (where my parents had a fishing camp when I was a teenager). It’s a wild scene where he’s catching fish as fast as he can cast out while speed rapping like Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road. That was the first scene I wrote. It came to me in a flash and I wrote it in one sitting, having no idea how it would fit in the novel. Over time I re-wrote it many times and moved it from the opening scene to near the end of the book.

I wanted Red Warner to have some distinguishing characteristics; I decided to give him a missing finger, cut off at the first knuckle. Once I did that I realized that… oh crap, now I have to explain how he lost the finger, and that eventually became a major plot point in a story and the dramatic climax to the story.

For other characters I took bits and pieces of people I knew. Travis was named after my brother-in-law but was absolutely nothing like him. Both Marybelle and Janet had physical characteristics borrowed from one of my sisters, one of whom was a dancer like Janet, and there was a scene involving a cruel practical joke played on Chuck on his wedding night that was inspired by a story another of my brothers-in-law told me—a story that I’m sure was pure fabrication even though he swore it was true. Maybe that brother-in-law should have been a writer.

For truly autobiographical fiction you have to go to my third novel, The Wives of Marty Winters. Of all the characters I’ve ever written, Marty is probably the most like me. But I was careful not to make him into any kind of hero. If I was going to have an avatar in one of my books, I wouldn’t want people to think I was idealizing myself. Robert Heinlein and Pat Conroy both do that and in each case it ruins otherwise excellent books. So, suspecting that readers who knew me might recognize me in Marty, I actually exaggerated in him some of my worst qualities. I made him something of a pushover.

I set the story in Olympia, Washington, where I have lived since 1988. Marty grew up in Olympia but left twice. First he did a hitch in the Navy and was stationed on a ship in Norfolk, Virginia, as did I, and then he spent a year or so in a communal household in Nashville, Tennessee—again, as did I.

There’s a reason these first three books were set in locales where I have lived and a reason that the main characters were all about my age. Both were to create a palpable sense of place and authenticity. Write what you know is the old axiom. I made the main characters my age so it would be easier to get facts right: getting the popular songs, books, movies at any given time right and ditto for hair styles, fashions and automobiles.

The “wives” of the title were an amalgamation of my three wives. Maria was my first wife, only much more devious and manipulative. She was a liar and she was unfaithful, not a nice person at all. My first wife was not like that—well, maybe a little, but then I was no saint either. Marty’s second wife, Marigold, was even more manipulative, and so was my actual second wife. Marigold underwent a huge change of personality after she and Marty moved from Nashville to Olympia. She changed her name to Selena and became an entirely different and much better person. Marigold was a flighty airhead hippie-dippy chick who followed a religious charlatan; Selena was a mother and a leader of the community who became the epitome of a PFLAG mom after their son came out as gay. The whole hippie scene in Nashville was like the year I spent there in 1970-71, and the Pride marches and other such events in Olympia and Seattle were just like the actual events except for the shooting. Selena was a combination of my third wife, Gabi, and Caroline Wagner, an activist friend who was one of the bravest and most loving people I’ve ever known.

After Wives, I decided that I was—to a much greater degree than I felt comfortable with—just telling my own stories with a few imaginative episodes thrown in. That’s what John Irving does in nearly all of his books, and although I dearly loved many of his books, especially The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany and Cider House Rules, I reached a point in reading Irving that I got tired of reading about the same characters: wrestlers and writers and bears and flatulent dogs, and I didn’t want to end up doing the same things with my books.  So I determined that my next book was going to be totally invented, no characters or events or settings from my life.

At the time I was reading, for the second time, a book by Larry Brown—dubbed the kind of grit lit by Barry Hannah (both Brown and Hannah died too young). Brown writes about wonderfully nasty and eccentric Southern characters, and I thought: why the hell don’t I write about more people like that? I certainly knew enough of them growing up in Mississippi. Once before I had invented a really fun redneck eccentric in Red Warner, and I decided it was time for another; and thus Earl Ray “Pop” Lawrence was born, a central character in The Backside of Nowhere. Pop was like every redneck I’d ever known all rolled together with a dash of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. For contrast, I gave him a son who was much more sophisticated, a son who clashed with his father, left home and became a movie star. Suddenly, to a greater degree than ever before, I was creating purely imaginative fiction, and I was having a blast with it. I even decided to create an imaginary town. I created the town of Freedom, Mississippi. I placed it in what is really the location of (or close to) Back Bay Biloxi, and I made up an entire history of the town beginning with a bunch of freed slaves and former white sharecroppers and Civil War deserters who founded the little town in the bayous shortly after the war. I even drew a map of the town so I’d know, for example, exactly how far it is from the Lawrence house to the high school and Little Don’s Diner and what you’d drive by on the way. No more autobiographical fiction.

But then I went back to bits of personal memory in my next book, Reunion at the Wetside. Like Freedom, Mississippi; Wetside, Washington is a fictitious town. It’s a combination of parts of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I grew up, with bits of Olympia and Tacoma, Washington thrown in. It’s located approximately halfway between Seattle and Portland. It sits between the forks of two rivers, neither of which exist in the real world. As with Freedom, I drew a map. This time a much more detailed map, and printed it in the book. To create the map I copied a Google map of my home town and changed it. There’s a section of the town called The Old Neighborhood that is an exact replica of the neighborhood where I grew up, and I could tell you who lived in every one of those houses. In the book they are Jim Bright and Alex Martin and Ophelia and the Delk boys and Bubba and Nancy, etc., etc. etc. None of the adult characters in Reunion are based on real people, but they reminisce a lot about their childhood, and all of the characters as teenagers are based on different people—or sometimes combinations of traits from one and another—that I knew when I was growing up. I can’t seem to resist the temptation to elaborate on remembered stories from my youth.

My next book is a sequel to The Backside of Nowhere with many of the same characters and a few new ones. They’re older now, and nothing in the new one is based on memories or people I’ve known.

So, I go back and force between drawing on memory and drawing on imagination. I suspect this combination of memory and imagination, which Hamburg called autobiographical fiction, is pretty much what nearly every writer does. I hope they all have as much fun with it as I do.


copyright © Alec Clayton 2012

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