Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Pitfalls of Contemporary Fiction

I’m feeling a little schizoid these days, at least in a literary sense.

My first novel, A More Obedient Wife, was set in the late 18th century and based on the lives of some real, albeit obscure, historical figures. After it came out a few years ago I started a second novel, set in the early 19th century and, once again, based on a real person’s life.

But after I’d begun that second novel, I had an idea for a contemporary social satire about mother-daughter relationships. And THAT novel, The Mother-Daughter Show, is due to come out in December from Fuze Publishing. So at the same time that I’m trying to gear up for the launch of The Mother-Daughter Show in the near future, I’m trying to launch myself back in time to continue work on my second historical novel.

It’s a little dizzying. What all three novels have in common is that the main characters are women. Otherwise, though, they’re definitely apples and oranges, or maybe even applesauce and kiwi.

For one thing, in my historical novels my goal has been to reconstruct as much as possible, from letters and other documents, what my characters were really like. With The Mother-Daughter Show, I started with real people in a real situation—a musical revue at my daughter’s school—but to a large extent I tried to depart from that reality. I didn’t want to write about what really happened, because what really happened wouldn’t have made a good novel. Life rarely hands you a tight plot. And while certain things happened that were amusing, to make the book really funny it was necessary to exaggerate—and invent.

Nor did I want to write a roman a clef, with thinly veiled fictional characters standing in for real people. For my novel to work, I needed fully developed characters with rich and complicated lives, and I just didn’t know enough about the people involved in the real Mother-Daughter Show (aside from myself) to write about them successfully. Nor, of course, did I want to hurt anyone’s feelings, even inadvertently. Some novelists may be out to settle scores—I once saw a T-shirt that said “Be Nice to Me, or I’ll Put You in My Novel”—but that wasn’t my motivation.

But while I know that my characters are products of my imagination, I don’t have control over the reactions of readers. And that’s another difference between this book and my other projects: when you write a novel that’s set two hundred years ago, you don’t have to worry too much about readers thinking you’re actually writing about them, or people they know. So, despite my disclaimer, there may be people who think they recognize themselves or others in The Mother-Daughter Show.

And in a sense, they may be right. The fact is, I recognize myself, or parts of myself, in each of my main characters. That’s true, I think, of any author’s fictional creations, because as a novelist you need to find a strand in yourself that corresponds to each of your characters. And my hope is that readers will also find aspects of my characters—including my 18th- and 19th-century characters—with which they can identify. Beyond that, while there’s no one-to-one correspondence between the characters in The Mother-Daughter Show and real individuals, I’ve certainly lifted bits and pieces of real things I’ve heard and observed at various points in my life and put them in the novel. All writers do that—we’re like magpies.

Of course, there’s at least one other difference between this novel and the others: The Mother-Daughter Show is a satire. I hope all my characters come across as sympathetic, but they’re also flawed—and those flaws are often a source of humor, or at least I hope they are. And I hope that if readers think they recognize themselves, or parts of themselves, in my characters, they’ll be able to laugh—just as I was laughing at myself as I created them.

One final note: I’ve decided to create a second blog that will focus on matters having to do with the general themes of The Mother-Daughter Show, and keep this blog focused on writing fiction based on the lives of historical figures. Astute readers will notice that I’ve renamed this blog—instead of “Natalie Wexler’s Blog,” it’s now called “Imagining the Past.” I don’t have a name yet for the new one. Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment