A question I’ve gotten a lot about my novels is a variation on “What parts are true?”
This question irked me. I would retort with snappy answers: “None of it’s true, that’s why it’s called fiction.” Or: “It’s all true! I’m incapable of imagination.” Or: “Whatever part you believe is true.”
I was bothered because asking about what’s true in a novel takes attention away from the work and places it on the author. I didn’t want that attention. Read the work, I say. The only thing that matters is what’s written on the page. The story is the only thing that’s interesting.
But if readers know a writer personally, they want to know if any of the characters and events are modeled after “real” people—perhaps even someone they know? Harriet used to say she was going to get a t-shirt printed that said, “I’m not Gwen!” because people thought she was the inspiration for the protagonist in STASH. She wasn’t. Nor was I the inspiration for the gambling addict or the business-executive-turned-murderer in CLEAN BREAK.
I improved my attitude over the years. I understood why people were curious. And if a story itself isn’t true, it is true that every character, every scene, every plot point, every word of dialog I write gets filtered through my own real, researched, or imagined experience. There’s no other place material can come from.
There’s this one scene in my novel STILL LIFE that definitely had its origins in my experience. In the scene, the narrator, Vincent, a young teenager, is out with his father in a rowboat on the lake where they live. The father had recently lost his job and he occasionally keeps his son home from school so he can have a companion for the day.
Here’s the scene:
We fished for a while from the dock, casting spinners. We stopped after twenty minutes without a nibble and stood side by side peeing into the water, one of our favorite things to do together. My father’s pee lasted longer, but I could fire a golden arc that his dribble couldn’t touch. At least I was no loser at peeing.
Then we went out in the boat and tried fishing with worms. I rowed because of my father’s bad back. He dragged a line in the water, and when I boarded the oars I put my line in, too. We didn’t catch anything, not a catfish, not a trout. When my father got bored with fishing, he had me row back and forth at the narrow end of the lake, timing how long I took to reach the other side. I did this three or four times until I told him I was tired.
“Once more for your old man,” he said, and I started out again.
“This will build your muscles up, Vinny,” he said. “A man’s got to have muscles as well as a brain or else he’s not really a man. A smart kid like you, you’ve already get the brain part.”
My father had biceps like melons, which I often felt. On one of them was a tiny tattoo of a sea serpent, no bigger than a matchstick, he got in the Marines. He had this trick where he put the tip of his thumb in his mouth and gave the illusion of blowing up his muscles like a balloon. I was skinny as a comb.
After I finished rowing another width of the lake we saw Dr. Abrams. He swam right up until the time the water started to freeze. He wore a wetsuit when the water got cold. He was swimming not far from our boat, first the crawl, then turning over for the backstroke, and then back to the crawl again. Other than our boat, he was the only thing moving in the water. I don’t think he saw us.
“He looks kind of tired,” my father said. “How about we go over and see if he wants a ride.”
“My arms hurt.”
“Keep rowing, Vinny. You can do it.”
I was exhausted from the workout my father gave me but I paddled with the left oar to turn us, then rowed towards Dr. Abrams. My strokes were sloppy now. I splashed my father a couple of times when I hit the water wrong with the oar. I sort of did it on purpose. I approached at an angle and watched for Dr. Abrams over the port side. He did the sidestroke now, his face pointed away from us, then started doing surface dives and swimming underwater. He made hardly any splash. He did this a few times, and then he dove under and didn’t come up.
I rowed right over the spot where he went under, raising the oars and letting the boat glide.
“Dr. Abrams?” my father called. “Ted!”
I looked down, but couldn’t see anything. The water was gray and opaque as a rock, and deep this far out, maybe thirty feet. Everything was very quiet.
“Where is he, Dad?”
“Jesus,” my father said. He was standing in the boat now leaning over the side. We were rocking badly. “Did you see where he went down?” he asked me.
“Around here,” I said. But I had the feeling that once below the surface, Dr. Abrams could have gone anywhere.
My father pulled off his watch and took his wallet out of his pants. He handed them to me, then dove over the side of the boat. “Dad, don’t!” I said, but he was already in the water. He surfaced immediately, his arms splashing around. He slicked his silver hair back off his face. “Shit, it’s cold!” he said. I could hear him breathing. He tread water for few seconds, turning his head to look in all directions, then dove under for a long time and finally came up. He took a few more breaths and dove again. He surfaced and stroked twice and was at the side of the boat, which almost tipped over when he climbed back in. I held to the gunwales tightly, afraid I was going to fall overboard.
My father shivered, his soaked clothes sticking to him. Water dripped from his nose and chin. He continued to scan the surface. “Jesus, Lord,” he said. “Oh, Jesus.”
We sat there until the water became still again. Finally Dad looked at me. He tried a smile which wouldn’t come out and ended by biting his lower lip. He reached over and put a cold hand on my shoulder. “Okay, mate, you better row us back in.”
The part that’s true is that I was once on Lake Erie in a rowboat with my father and my brother and sister. Maybe eleven or twelve years old. It was a fine summer evening and I remember the sun low in the sky and casting a golden stripe across the water’s surface. We were out pretty far and we saw a water skier let go of his tow line, wave to the driver of the motorboat and begin swimming toward shore. We watched him stroking along and then he disappeared beneath the surface and didn’t come up. My father quickly rowed over there. He took his watch off. He handed me his wallet and keys. I was scared. He dove in and our little boat rocked hard. He kept taking heaving breaths and diving down to search for the man. To no avail.
Later, as we huddled on the beach, my father wet and shivering, the paramedics pulled a body from the lake, attempted resuscitation right there in the sand. I watched the whole thing. It was almost dark now. I was still grasping my Dad’s keys tightly in my hand. I never forgot the day, obviously.