The Alchemy of Fiction

Was your husband in Vietnam? Have you ever been to Vietnam? Is Maggie’s story your story? Did you live in New York City? Boston?


These are questions I’ve been frequently asked since Absolution was published. And no, neither my husband nor I have ever been to Vietnam. Maggie’s story is not my story. She was born in rural North Carolina. I was born in Miami, Florida. Yes, I have lived in New York City, and no, I have not lived in Boston, although both of my children have.


An expectation many readers share is that a novel mirrors the author’s life. That isn’t necessarily unrealistic or wrong. Some novels do exactly that. But writing fiction is often a far more complex and mysterious process. Which is why I find alchemy to be a good metaphor for it.


Most of us understand alchemy as the medieval attempt to transmute ordinary metals into gold. Writing fiction involves its own kind of transmutation (even if the “gold” is seldom the monetary kind!). The task for fiction writers is to take the elemental stuff of our lives—experiences, people we’ve known, things we’ve heard or learned in school, places we’ve been and, yes, our research—and turn these into human stories, even though our characters may in no way resemble us. Otherwise how does a man create a believable female character, an American writer create a Swede or Pakistani?


My first conundrum with Absolution was how to write about a place, a war and a military that I knew almost nothing about. But I at least knew people who did know these things, Vietnam veterans and others. I also read books, memoirs and diary entries from Vietnam. I found amazing resources on the Internet: not only eye-witness accounts and photographs but U.S. Army documents and an entire set of U.S. military maps from the War. Sadly, Google Earth wasn’t available to me when I was writing the novel, so I was forced to make some educated guesses and sometimes not even that. For all I knew, the Dak Dam River, which Richard has to swim, could have been three feet deep! That’s when fiction writers invoke poetic license.


For Maggie’s story, I drew on some personal experiences. Like Maggie, I came of age in the 1960’s and as a student opposed the Vietnam War. My anti-war activism, however, involved little more than participating in a few local rallies, circulating a petition against the War and writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, which they printed. In short, I was never a very active activist. My awareness of the War and the anti-war movement in those days came to me as it came to most Americans: through newspapers and TV.


I lived two years in New York City in the early 1970’s, just after the events that followed the Kent State shootings. Oddly enough, during those two years, I heard almost nothing about the rioting in the city over Kent State. The New York anti-war scenes in Absolution come from research, for which The New York Times on-line archives were critical.


There is one location, however, in Absolution taken directly from my life—Baird and Maggie’s squalid New York apartment. That was where I lived my first year in the city. And although a leader of the anti-war movement lived just down the hall, my apartment was home only to me and three cats.


But in the alchemy of fiction, writers can transform any space they’ve known or seen to fit their fictional needs: like Richard and Maggie’s Back Bay townhouse. My daughter and her husband once lived in a townhouse on the same Back Bay street, a few blocks from Ted Kennedy. But that townhouse had been divided into apartments and their share of it was a single room with a loft. At some point, the building had been zoned as a lodging house, and while they were there, the management had the stoves disconnected in every apartment because the zoning did not allow kitchens (although the stoves were soon reconnected). This “lodging house” stood on one of Boston’s poshest streets. The neighboring townhouses had small but beautifully landscaped yards, ornate iron fences, brick walkways and stone steps leading up to elegant chandeliered foyers. My daughter’s building had a scraggy strip of yard, concrete sidewalk and steps and a drab foyer lit by a neon light visible from the street. That is the only Boston townhouse I have ever been in.


Whenever you read a novel or story and wonder about the influence a writer’s life had on the settings and characters, remember this: personal experiences may play a considerable role in what and how we write, but there is another essential ingredient in the making of fiction: we who do it love to make things up!


Posted February  7, 2014