Turning “Fact” into “Faction” – on writing a memoir

Business man walking on a high tightrope Memoir writing is increasingly popular as a storytelling genre, but there are pitfalls even to what you might think is the easiest thing to write — adventures based on the story of your life. Someone once said it’s the closest thing to writing poetry a prose writer can do. Whether that’s true or not, what is true is that writing a good memoir is like walking a tightrope — the details of the narrative have to be compelling, but the details in the end aren’t what makes the memoir work, it’s the universality of what you’re saying that is important.

Susan Faludi’s recent book In the Darkroom is a good case in point. Faludi is arguably one of the most important feminist writers of the last 30 years. In the summer of 2004 she received an email from her 76-year-old father, a man she had barely spoken to in nearly 25 years. When her mother divorced her father Faludi was 16, and her father responded to the news with what Faludi describes as “a season of escalating violence.” His unexpected 2004 email said, “I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man . . .” and announced he had recently had sex reassignment surgery and was now Stefánie Faludi.

Would you want to read more? I think the odds are strong the answer is yes. The fact that this really happened makes it compelling, but the fact that it is also in part an exploration of gender roles and expectations, and the way Faludi writes her memoir defies obvious conclusions and explanations, also makes it universal.

Whether you have Macmillan publish your memoir or you do it yourself, publishing a memoir about outrageous events (which is why we read them) and turning them into edge-of-the-seat adventures can be seriously problematic if you can’t validate what you are saying actually happened. These things will return boomerang-like if not handled professionally. That’s why it’s always useful to hire a company like Lincoln Square and it’s editors and copyeditors who are trained to spot the unintended sinkholes in the road before you actually reach them. (We can’t do anything about fabrication however. We accept what you say is true and may be able to point out where things may start setting off some bells.)

Fictionalizing nonfiction is like walking a tightrope — deliberate deception clearly crosses a line that, for instance, Lorrenzo Carcaterra’s bestselling book Sleepers frankly hugged. He at least warns you that while the book is true, names and details have been changed to “protect” characters in the story. In other words, while it’s true it’s also not exactly true either. It’s up to the reader to figure out exactly how far Carcaterra went in stretching the truth in the drama.  (E.L. Doctorow once famously said that all novelists are professional liars, but because they are forced to admit they are lying, they end up telling the truth.)

Another well known deception that clearly crossed the line was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, his 2003 memoir of being a 23-year-old alcoholic drug abuser in a Twelve Steps-oriented rehab center. Margaret B. Jones’ (aka Margaret Seltzer) Love and Consequences,  was a “memoir” of her life as a white foster child raised by a black single mom in gang-infested South-Central Los Angeles. Once the book was out and gaining some attention her older sister “outed” her by saying it was all made up.

We live in a “gotcha” culture, and the more a book becomes successful (which is surely one of the reasons we publish in the first place), the more scrutiny the book and its author get. The real shame of it is that the writers mentioned above (and others who fell victim to the same problem) are usually pretty talented.

Sarah McGrath, the editor at Riverhead who worked with Ms. Seltzer for three years on the book, told the New York Times she was “stunned” to discover that the author had lied.  “There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one,” she said. Meanwhile, Cyndi Hoffman, 47, the older sister who “outed” Margaret, commented about the publisher: “I would think that protocol would have them doing fact-checking.”

But as Geoffrey Kloske, then publisher of Riverhead Books said, “The fact is that the author went to extraordinary lengths: she provided people who acted as her foster siblings. There was a professor who vouched for her work, and a writer who had written about her that seemed to corroborate her story.” He might have added that she also signed a contract with a warranties clause agreeing to tell the truth.

The whole point being, whether you are published through a mainstream company, or create your own company to publish your book, you should go to great lengths to make sure your dramatic story is verifiably true.

Mimi Read, the freelance reporter who wrote the profile of Ms. Seltzer that brought down her house of cards summed it up: “The way I look at it is that it’s just like when you get in a car and drive to the store — you assume that the other drivers on the road aren’t psychopaths on a suicide mission. . . .  She seemed to be who she said she was. Nothing in her home or conversation or happenstance led me to believe otherwise.”

We are all prone to exaggeration. But beware telling people that instead of walking past the gorilla cage in the zoo, it became a life and death struggle with that gorilla as you tried to rescue a hapless child from its grasp. Almost certainly, the more successful your book, the more likely it is that someone somewhere will check out the truth of what you say and call you on it if you’ve gone too far.