Conversations on the Art of Writing Fiction
IRONY IS NOT DEAD.
Not long ago, a friend of mine was reading a manuscript version of my new novel, Getting Right (release date January 29, 2016), and looked up at me to ask, “How can you bear the irony of this?”
Her question stemmed from her knowledge that my novel, Getting Right, is fictionally structured around my brother’s and sister’s struggles with terminal illness. My brother died from cancer in 2006. My sister died from cancer in 2008. I finished writing Getting Right in 2012 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. (My case, unlike theirs, has been cured—as much as anything like this can be—so I again have the good fortune to be here interpreting what all this means—to me, at least.)
“How could you manage to write this?” my friend went on. “How could you stand it?”
Two excellent but quite different questions. Let’s start with the second: I had no choice but to write the book once I’d visited my sister in the hospital and was told her cancer was inoperable. But that devastating news wasn’t what I took away from my visit to her. Rather, I remember an image of the PIC line in her arm, which haunted me for days after I left—I simply couldn’t shake it from my mind. I soon wrote it down, hoping that would give me some relief. Instead, the image took on a life of its own and became the opening passage of Getting Right:
The hole in the crook of Connie’s arm resembled a miniature red mouth going OOO! A Betty Boop mouth puckering for a kiss, a greedy little baby mouth sucking through a plastic tube injection after injection of clear liquids and antibiotics, none of which assuaged her real hunger. . . .
Even with such an image, the novel didn’t happen right away, of course, but soon enough. It became clear that once I started thinking about a Betty Boop mouth and all it implied, I couldn’t not write the story, come hell or high water.
The first question from my friend of how I managed to write the book is even more complicated. Since the raw material I was dealing with—the deaths of my brother and sister and my witnessing of those—was so close and so emotionally-charged, I had to figure out a way to distance myself from the “real” world I’d been involved in so I could deal with it in a fictional way.
It took me a while to decide on a narrative structure that would give me the distance and freedom I needed to explore what I thought was the larger story underlying the purely “factual” one of my siblings’ deaths. As I worked, it became apparent that more than “cancer” and “suffering” were at the base of what I was trying to create. The novel’s canvas grew larger and larger the more people and issues I uncovered, so that Getting Right came to involve a whole family, past and present, and their stories, individual and collective.
In order to deal with this wider-ranging narrative, I artificially divided the work into three acts—the first concerning the narrator’s sister Connie, the second the narrator’s brother Len, and the third “me,” the nameless narrator himself. The story is told through the point of view of “me,” who is charged early on by Connie to write the story of her life. He says he will, but only if he can do so on his terms. What follows is a filtering of memory and imagination through the narrator’s mind that spins itself into the novel, Getting Right.
When I finished, I sat back, strangely satisfied, this time not succumbing to the sense I sometimes have that what I’ve just written is a disaster. No, this story seemed right, felt right, had a ring of intrinsic “truth” I liked. All well and good, I thought.
But despite what I saw as my well-realized artistic intentions, another friend who read the manuscript earlier on said, “You know, before I comment here, can you tell me what I’m reading, a novel or a memoir?”
Hmmm. Another good question, maybe best left for a future post.
With this blog, I hope to begin an ongoing conversation with my readers around the art of fiction writing. What is fiction? What draws us, as readers, to it? What does fiction offer our senses that other forms of writing do not? Where do ideas for fiction come from? How are they shaped into the forms we recognize and find satisfying? These are only a few “seed” questions to help stimulate your own ideas as we move along in our developing discussion.
Please feel free at any time to submit your observations, questions, or comments to me at GaryDWilson.com
GARY D. WILSON’s best-selling first novel, Sing, Ronnie Blue, appeared in 2007. He has taught fiction and short story writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago. His work has been recommended for a Pushcart Prize, and he was a finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Drue Heinz Literary Prize. He currently lives with his wife in Chicago and is working on his next novel The Narrow Window.