After years of studiously avoiding even the slightest scrap of reality in my fiction, I’ve become an inveterate includer of my own world in the worlds of my characters. My narrator in The Kitchen Daughter lives not only in Philadelphia, where I lived when I wrote the book, but on the very same corner (9th and Spruce) in the very same house. None of my characters are inspired by people I know, but I’ll often nab observations of bits of dialogue from my own experiences. I once centered a short story around a single overheard line of conversation: “‘Where are you’ is not a personal question. ‘Where are your hands’ is a personal question.” My reality is, as Carolyn Parkhurst so beautifully put it in describing her own work, “the butter in the cookie.” It isn’t the whole thing, but it’s an important ingredient.

And yet this week I’m wondering if there are things we shouldn’t take from real life because they belong too much to other people.

I live in Brooklyn Heights, one of the few areas of New York City blessedly and luckily unscathed by Sandy. Every day I hear more and more stories of our neighbors’ experiences — cold dark nights in Manhattan, devastating losses in Queens, deaths in Staten Island. The hurricane has been a shared experience for this area, but not an equally shared tragedy. For many it has been an earth-shattering, life-altering disaster, like Katrina, like 9/11, like the sinking of the Titanic.

Is it disrespectful in some way to include disasters like these in our fiction? I honestly don’t know.

The novel I’m currently working on incorporates a real-life historical disaster in its plot. Somehow that hasn’t bothered me until now. Real people died in this tragic event, and I’m using it as a device to change my protagonist’s life — the life of someone who never existed. Upon reflection I’ve decided that the event is far enough in the past to be fair game for fiction, but I’m not sure why that seems like the right criterion on which to judge. A few years ago 9/11 began to find its way into novels on a semi-regular basis, so clearly other writers have a different opinion on what yardstick to use.

It’s an ongoing question, I guess. And one we also need to consider in smaller measures. We write about individual disasters in fiction far more often than the large ones. Things that affect individuals, that change them forever, even if we as writers have been lucky enough not to endure them firsthand. Cancer. Murder. Miscarriage. Suicide. Death of a parent, or a child. These are the stuff of fiction, but they are also the stuff of life, and readers will come to the page with experiences we can’t know or predict.

If fiction is made up of real things, who do they belong to? As writers, should we make them ours? Or leave the big ones alone?

 

(Flood photo, not of NYC, via Flickr Creative Commons by debs-eye)

About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.