Distancing Ourselves from our Fiction
“All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.”
So said P.D. James. I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny the statement. But I know the question of whether a novel is autobiographical is one that is often asked, by interviewers as well as by family, friends and casual acquaintances.
Why do we authors sometimes feel vexed by the question? I think we’re bothered and maybe a little insulted by the suggestion that we’ve inserted a piece of ourselves rather than being totally creative. And yet, we probably all do it to some extent. Putting yourself into another’s shoes can be awfully hard. Why not let your character have just a few of your own experiences, thoughts and feelings?
Of course, that leaves us wide open to the question, “How autobiographical is the novel?” Inside, there’s a feeling that any declaration of similarity between the main character and ourselves is an admission that we took the easy way out. But how valid a feeling is that?
In some ways, it is true. It lets us write about things we’ve always known, which must be easier than making it all up from scratch. In other ways, it’s much harder than writing about a totally fictional character, or at least one that isn’t you. It bares you, the author, making you vulnerable to criticism and taunting.
I’m going to tell you the story of the first character I ever created. I’d spent a few years as a member of an online forum for sufferers of social anxiety, where I learned a lot through reading their posts and comments. I’d written a non-fiction book explaining social anxiety, which included numerous quotes from fellow sufferers. (That book, Social Anxiety Revealed, was published in an improved version years later.) I’d decided I wanted to delve into fiction, because fiction could free me to write about thoughts and feelings that no real people would admit to. I’d read several excellent books about writing fiction.
Who would my main character be? One of the decisions I made early on was that my main character would be male. This was in order to distance him from me. The main character would have similar traits and experiences to me, including being bullied at school, but because he was male, the bullying would be much more physical. Because he was male, he could go though life without anyone ever approaching him to begin a romantic relationship. Because he was male, he clearly wouldn’t be me.
The novel also had a female protagonist, but her path to social anxiety was completely different to mine.
So, I wrote my novel, filling pages of notebooks with my scribbles. Lacking names for my main characters, I called them M for male and F for female, and they eventually morphed into Martin and Fiona. I gave Martin some of my experiences, not really believing I was able to make up whole scenes, but eventually I learned to be more creative. I worked on my novel with the writing group I joined. I submitted it to a ‘real author’, who charged a fee for critiquing. When the critique arrived, I discarded the novel, realising the plot wasn’t interesting enough. Really, it didn’t have much of a plot at all. Looking back now, I wonder how I could ever have thought it had any merit at all.
I went on to write other fiction, unconnected to social anxiety, and, in due course, I began to get published. But I didn’t forget Martin and Fiona, and I’m delighted they’re back in my new novel, Cultivating a Fuji. Delighted but also nervous, because that question will undoubtedly return often and I need to answer it without showing a hint of frustration: “Yes, there are similarities between Martin and me, but there are also differences. Martin has different genes and different experiences that combine to make him a different person. He believes the best way for him to live his life is alone, keeping apart from other people as much as possible. That was never my philosophy. I always craved company, no matter what it did to me.”
What I shouldn’t say to the questioner is, “No, Martin isn’t me! He’s totally made up.” That would make me sound angry, and the falsity of such an answer, while probably delighting an interviewer trying to galvanise the audience, wouldn’t show the best side of me!
I think it’s all right for a novel to be partly autobiographical. I think it’s natural for authors to be drawn to topics that have affected them personally, and to create characters who have something in common with the authors themselves. In my case, I became passionate, years ago, about raising awareness of social anxiety through being a member of that online forum. I realised how a lot of people would be helped if there were more knowledge, understanding and even compassion in the wider community. That’s why I knew I wanted to write about it. And any character with social anxiety that I created would have to share some traits with me.
Like all interview questions, preparation is essential, especially when you’re as unspontaneous a person as I am. I think I’ve got the autobiographical one worked out, now, thanks to you, Sandy.
Miriam Drori is the author of the following Books:
The Women Friends: Selina (With Author Emma Rose Miller)
Amazon page: Author.to/MiriamDroriAtAmazon.