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Does Art Have to Imitate Life?

Flickr Creative Commons: Cameron Strandberg
Flickr Creative Commons: Cameron Strandberg

Readers of my posts here have perhaps heard me complain about this before—the assumption that every book that I write is somehow based on some personal experience. I’ve never understood why this is so often the assumption of writers of a certain kind of fiction (I say a certain kind because, surely, Stephen King does not get asked whether he actually had a possessed car, or travelled through a wormhole to try to stop the Kennedy assassination). Is it because people don’t think writers of commercial/contemporary or literary fiction have an imagination? Is it because many people’s first novels are, at least in part, semi-autobiographical? Is it because of that old trope: write what you know?

I have built some defense mechanisms to this question over the years. If my books were all really about me, I tell people who ask now, then I would have had a pretty interesting life: a stint in rehab to get the inside scoop on a celebrity, followed by an arranged marriage, then getting lost in Africa for six months and having everyone assume I was dead, then an affair with a married man and finally a stint as a wildland firefight/arson investigator in a small town in the Rockies. I get tired just making that list!

But really, perhaps the better question is: why does it bother me that people make that assumption? Of course there is something of me in each of my books. My experiences, my opinions, my voice as a writer are all in there. My name is on the cover, for goodness sake. So why, why does it bug me?

I am a private person. I am married to an even more private person. And being an artist these days—any kind of artist—means cracking open at least part of your life and putting it out there via social media. Look what I ate today for lunch! Look where I went paddle-boarding! Looking at this silly sign I found. Here’s what I think about this year’s election. I participate in all of this—partly because I feel that I have to—but it does leave one feeling exposed. And writing is an exposure of a different sort. It is cracking ones emotions open and infusing them on the page. Characters feel real in fiction because they are infused with the time the writer puts into them. They live with us, beside us, in our heads, and sometimes seem more real than the people we are standing next to. And then we hit Send and let them go out into the world.

If I admitted, if I confirmed, that this event, or that, this turn of phrase or thought, was precisely what I thought and felt at a specific moment in time, then what would I be admitting about myself? What would people know about me? And would that increase or decrease the enjoyment of the reader?

I myself prefer the mystery. When I know too much about a writer—Jonathan Franzen, say—it infects the work. A book should stand on its own, outside the author. If it is any good, it should be enjoyed regardless of the name on the cover. Shouldn’t it?

I am not sure if I am trying to convince you, or myself. But there is this:

My upcoming novel, Fractured, has a main character named Julie Apple who is a writer who had a book blow up (imagine Gillian Flynn after Gone Girl). The book, The Murder Game, is about four law school friends who plan a perfect murder, and then maybe commit it ten years later. People assume that the book is based on events in Julie’s life (a mysterious death of a friend in law school). This brings her all kinds of unwanted attention and she moves her family across country to get away from it all. That is the set up for the book, and yes, I admit, a way, perhaps to give some backstory to a character and work out my own frustration.

What I am going with this? Well, the other day, someone posted this review of Fractured on their book blog [1]:

Catherine McKenzie has crafted a fascinating psychological thriller. The characters in this book are so believable that readers will be forced to wonder if any (or all of them) are based on real people.

And that my friends, is called being hoisted by your own petard.

So, what about you? Do you assume that fiction is based on real life? What about in your own writing? Are you writing thinly veiled memoir or do you deliberately leave your life out of your fiction? Let me know!

About Catherine McKenzie [2]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN, HIDDEN, and FRACTURED, were all international bestsellers and have been translated into multiple languages. HIDDEN was a #1 Amazon bestseller, and a Digital World Bestseller for five weeks. Her fifth novel, SMOKE, was an Amazon bestseller, picked as a Best Book of October 2015 by Goodreads and one of the Top 100 Books of 2015 by Amazon. Learn more about her latest bestselling releases, THE GOOD LIAR [3] and I'LL NEVER TELL [4], and watch for her latest releasing in June of 2020: YOU CAN'T CATCH ME [5].