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Some Thoughts About Autobiographical Novels

Wednesday, March 18, 2015| Permalink

Earlier this week, Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her two decades living in the Midwest as a “passing” Jew. The author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, Judith is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I’m sometimes asked if my novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, is autobiographical. The first time I heard this question I was taken aback. A Reunion of Ghosts is essentially a long suicide note written by three unhappy sisters whose family legacy has left them with a shared burden of shame and guilt. Delph, the youngest sister, believes they are being visited by the sins of their great grandfather—a chemist who developed and personally deployed the first poison gases used in war. Lady and Vee, the two older sisters, don’t believe that they’re cursed, exactly, but they sure don’t think that they’re blessed. The sisters are often witty and droll—dark humor is their saving grace—but they have dreary jobs and drinking problems and no real friends and zero love lives and poor Vee has cancer and... well, things are just not going well.

So what, then, I wonder, are people asking when they want to know if this book is autobiographical? Are they inquiring as to whether I, too, am chronically miserable and alcoholic and suicidal? For the record, my answer is: Unless I am being forced to watch a sporting event on TV, no. None of the characters in A Reunion of Ghosts are inspired by my own life or even by people I know or have known.

And yet, I have to admit I’ve put parts of me into those sisters. The sisters and I are similar in age. They live in a part of New York City where I once lived. They go to the college I attended. Lady has the same wooden dishes that were my first set of dishes, both of us figuring we’d have them forever because they’d never break. Neither of us had considered the splinter problem.

In terms of personality and behavior, the sisters and I share other attributes. Like me, they crack jokes in the midst of dark times. Like me, they are introverted and once they’re home, they have a hard time going out again. Also we share an obsession with certain German-Jewish chemists circa World War I.

This is the way novels come to life. The novelist imbues her characters and their environs with all sorts of borrowed flotsam and jetsam from real life. Some of these details are small—a photograph of a dog attending a wedding that the author once saw—and some are large—the author is diagnosed with cancer (she is fine now) and decides to share the illness with a character. That doesn’t mean the character is the author in any truly meaningful way. For the author, her own cancer is a disturbing reality, but her character’s cancer is metaphor.

And yet, even while I demur at the suggestion that I’m writing some sort of thinly-disguised memoir, I do understand the impulse to ask if a work of fiction is autobiographical even when it seems abundantly clear that it isn’t. The author may not have experienced the specific events she writes about; she may not have had her heart broken in the same exact way as a character has; she may never have been abandoned by a parent; she may even be merrily writing about chemists without having taken a chemistry course in her life. But if she’s going to breathe life into her characters, she has to find a way slip into their skins and see the world through their eyes. That calls for an act of the imagination. Fiction, of course, is such an act. But so is empathy such an act. For me, writing fiction requires empathy for every single character in the book—including the villains. Especially the villains. In fact, if I’m truly writing empathetically, there are no villains.

I think, then, that when readers ask if a story is autobiographical, what they’re actually asking is, How did you manage to make these characters feel whole and complex and idiosyncratic and human? Did you borrow from your life? Or did you actually imagine and make a new life?

It’s a wonderful question when you think of it that way. It’s a reminder that novelists, in writing about people who are not like themselves, can persuade readers to care about people who are not like themselves. Our fictional characters exist not because they are us, but because they are born of our understanding of the human condition with all its sorrows and joys and irrationalities. In that way, then, these characters do come from a deeply personal part of the author. In that way, perhaps all novels are autobiographical.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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