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How much of YOU is in your story?

March 13, 2011

Do you ever wonder how much of a novel is autobiographical?  How much is based on actual events in the author’s life?

I’m reading How it Feels by Brendan Cowell at the moment and as the protagonist is a young man studying performance arts in Bathurst, and Brendan Cowell is an actor/director/writer, I’m wondering how much has been lifted from reality. How much of the story is fiction-disguised memoir?  Whether its pure fiction or based on reality, it is interesting to be inside this protagonist’s head and see a very male point of view.

I read somewhere that most first novels are thinly-disguised memoirs.  The first story that is shot out from an author’s pen or on the computer screen is a rehash of the author’s life.  And why not?  They say ‘write what you know’ and writing is such a good way of making sense of the world.  For a lot of writers, ‘the world’ is intensely personal. They’re not looking at the big picture. Rather they are looking at their immediate environment and how it affects them. Some authors never even bother writing fiction.  They solely draw on the events of their life and write memoir after memoir – their perspective on the truth.  And then there are those who write fiction, and claim that it is memoir.

Me? I love making things up. But I am guilty of using events in my life as a basis of my stories and reimagining them, sometimes with a completely different outcome, and always with different characters. ‘Write what you know’ can include events as well as emotions. It can include a lot of ‘what-ifs?’  Write what you feel passionate about – usually that is going to connect to your real life somehow.

Without counting the manuscript I wrote at 15 which was a Charlie’s Angels goes back to school type spy story (well, I at least knew the school bit), my first manuscript Kissing Toads was semi-autobiographical.  My main character was a photographer with a gay best friend (tick) looking for Mr. Right (tick), living in Glebe (well I had lived in Annandale). Actually by the time I started writing this story, I was happily partnered, but quite a bit of it was based on my previous attempts to find ‘the one’ and other situations that had really happened  (advertising in the newspaper, attending Wiccan events, forays into the theatre world, attending the wedding of an ex).

The story was set in Sydney and I used the years I had grown up and lived in the city to give the setting strong character with scenes set at the Opera House, Luna Park, Glebe, Town Hall Station, Vaucluse.  I wasn’t a photographer but I had a strong interest in photography and had completed a dark room course – hence a sex scene set in a dark room (and no, that wasn’t from real life which is probably a good thing!). And then there was my big-time crush on a certain actor which I reproduced in the novel with a character called Jake. Of course, Amanda, my main character, got a little bit further than me in real life, but was still left heartbroken.  But in the end, she met her Mr Might-Be-Right in a completely different way to how I met mine. So yes, there was a lot of ME in that story.

Since then it’s only really the situations that have given me the kernel of a story. For several years I ran a short film festival. So in Making the Cut, Chloe moves to a tiny town called Bilby Creek to run a film festival – and a very different story to my life.

In I’m with the Band,  the story was triggered when I saw Moving Pictures on their reunion tour and felt like I was 17 again. I just wanted to capture that feeling in a story. So there’s probably only a scene or two in that based on reality, the rest is just pure imagination.

A short story I wrote called ‘Are you a Real Person?’ is set in a call centre. I was working in a call centre at the time, and it was dedicated to all the customer who asked that question, and there were many of them. In the story, the girl’s parts wear out (hands, eyes etc) until she is gradually replaced with bionic parts, and fully owned by the corporation. In the end, she is no longer a real person. I was quite reluctant to let my boss read the story – I thought he might get ideas. But as far as I know, no-one in that place has actually turned into a robot. It just sometime feels that way.

Now I’m writing/rewriting Beyond Happily Ever After and Cinderella’s story, I really do have to rely on my imagination. Strangely enough, I’ve never been a princess. I’ve never been the subject of media speculation. I’ve never been hounded by paparazzi. And I’ve never been desperate to have a child. But it still has strong ties to reality – we only have to look at the gossip magazines, the treatment of next month’s royal wedding to see where I got some of my inspiration.

And yet, when I do sometimes wonder how much of the fiction is based on reality, and how much is pure imagination.

On my last night in Sydney I went to the Jeff Lindsay talk at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt.

Jeff Lindsay is the author of the Dexter series, and Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who kills other serial killers.

Would you think this to look at Jeff Lindsay? Probably not.

And yet when he attended a Kiwanis event (like our Rotary), he looked around at all the false smiles of the insurance salesmen and real estate agents, watched them talking with food in their mouths and thought  ‘Serial murder? Not always a bad thing.’  He scribbled the outline of the first Dexter novel on a pile of cocktail napkins and Dexter (and his Dark Passenger) was born.

So Dexter is pure imagination and a lot of research.  I doubt there is any autobiography in there, except that one dark thought that triggered the story.

I really enjoyed hearing Jeff Lindsay speak and hear his answers to the audience’s questions. And of course, I bought the latest Dexter book and had it signed. For more on the Q&A, visit Shearer’s Bookshop blog.

So I ask the question again,  how much of YOU is in your story?

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