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The Intersection of Truth and Fiction

Illusions perdues by Mathieu Struck [1]

One of the questions that comes up for writers over and over again is, “how much of this book is true?”

A few days ago, a local book group invited me to come visit with them after they read The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue [2], in which the main character is navigating a separation from her husband. Three other women are tossed on the waves of marriage, too: a young writer struggling for autonomy, a beautiful woman who has been valued too much for beauty and not her strength, and an old woman grieving the loss of her husband. As I am divorced, and relocated to a new city since that book was published, the question arose: was I writing my own story with Trudy?

Well, partly. I was writing about what interested me at that moment, which was the role marriage plays in a woman’s life (and what it might cost). But I have also been the young writer, trying to balance motherhood, marriage and fierce ambition. I have never been a great beauty like Jade, but I’ve been young and blonde enough to be exasperated when nobody took my brains seriously. (I was honestly astonished when I suddenly needed glasses for nearsightedness at age 23, and the world stopped brushing me off.) I have not yet been that old woman, grieving, but I can see how I might be one day.

All of those stories come from my experiences, my understanding of marriage, of women and their husbands. Not only my personal experiences, but the experiences of people I know, and those I’ve heard stories about and read about.

Every story a writer composes somehow emerges from the writer. But where to draw the line between truth and fiction might be hard to distinguish. I am not a character. The character is herself. Some of my experiences lend verisimilitude, perhaps, but mostly, I’m cobbling together bits of this and pieces of that, gathering anything and everything that might be helpful to create a sense of a whole world for a reader.

In my next book, The Secret of Everything [3](out December 29 from Bantam), the main character, Tessa Harlow, leads hiking tours all over the world until a freak accident forces her to take a break and reassess her life. Now, I am a passionate and devoted hiker, and I have hiked all over the world, but the character was born out of a girl-crush I had on a real hiking tour leader I met in France, a Brit named Pip.

Life, fantasy, art.

The working title of the book was 100 Breakfasts, the name of a café that is central to the tale, and here there is more depth. I love breakfast. My father used to take me to breakfast at a little café when I was small, and let me choose songs on the tabletop jukebox. My grandfather served breakfast at his café, Ed’s Kitchen in Temecula, California, in the late sixties. My ex-husband used to make an enormous production of Sunday breakfasts throughout our marriage, and—until they rebelled at about mid-teenager-hood—I joyfully cooked a hot breakfast for my sons every school morning of their lives. I love breakfast, and more, I love feeding people, as does the character of Vera in the book. She thinks cooking, tending to yourself and others in that way, can be healing. So do I. Therein lies the verisimilitude, the feeling of truth in the book.

Our work comes out of our histories, our belief systems, our experiences in the world. I grew up in Colorado during a time when every imaginable counter culturist could be found. My uncle and his very long haired hippie friends actually painted a school bus to drive around the country, living together in communal bliss. Those people didn’t just disappear—they grew up to give us organic farmers and slow food chefs and yoga teachers and social workers. A lot of that history soaked into this book, too, when my character returns to the town of her birth, to make peace with memories she can’t quite untangle.

The other part of writing fiction, however, is the making-stuff up part. The woman boxer in Goddesses? Made it up. The town of Los Ladrones in Secret of Everything? Made it up, every last little scrap.

And in fact, nearly everything in a book is made up, even if it isn’t. Jewel, the heroine of No Place Like Home, goes to her father’s restaurant and touches the bullet holes on the bar, a legacy of the Black Hand (aka Mafia), which actually had a pretty strong hold on Pueblo Colorado until at least the ‘50s. She’s talking about her love of the restaurant business and five gallon jars of pickle chips, which is also something true for me. But woven together with the conflict of her father who disowned her (made it up) and the family of women in the restaurant kitchen, cooking pasta (made it up), none of it is true.

The most pleasurable part of writing for me is that weaving of truth and lies to create something that is more true than real life. The father in Secret of Everything, a 60-something ex-hippie surfer who runs a margarita shack on the beach and thinks all of his animals reincarnate to come back to him, is nothing at all like my own father, a former state patrolman who has never lived more than 60 minutes from the hospital he was born in, but the book is dedicated to him because it is about how fathers foster security in their daughters. How does a father take care of his children? He gives her breakfast every day, even if (like Tessa’s father), he’s a wandering magician for Renaissance Fairs.

What’s real, and what’s not? Only the writer ever really knows for sure. And even then, I’m not sure we always know.

Do these questions ever give you trouble? How do real life and fiction flow together in your work?

About Barbara O'Neal [4]

Barbara O'Neal [5] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [6], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [7].