The Perils of Fiction

January 4, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 10 4 min read

coverWhile writing Drift, my collection of interlinked short stories, I did my best to shut out the ongoing clamor of imagined disapproval and alienation from my family, promising myself to write uncensored. As I got closer to the reality of publication, I realized that the shit was going to hit the fan. So I bolstered myself with the support of writers, many of who had already endured the shit/fan combination.

Autobiographical fiction? How much is true? A woman from a readers’ group I recently attended said, “Bye, Rosie,” when I was leaving, calling me by my main protagonist’s name, even after my earlier explanation:

“Everything I’ve experienced, everything I’ve read, everything I’ve imagined, it’s like it’s all in this blender, and I don’t necessarily control what’s in there or the way it comes out. But once it’s out, I reshape and rearrange things, organize it. Parts are fictionalized versions of what my life could have been or might have been—but it’s not real.”

Yet I’d be lying if I said that Rosie didn’t contain me; that I wasn’t Rosie, Rosie wasn’t me.

Fiction, I’ve explained, over and over. It’s fiction.

I warned my parents, told them that they didn’t have to read the book. In fact, my brother decided not to read Drift, possibly ever, and our relationship has subsequently strengthened.

My parents both thought that I was overreacting, until they read their galleys, months before publication. Silence. A condemning two- to three-month silence, except for rumors and statements via circuitous sources, including the involvement of Satan in the cultivation of my prose, and the pitying assurance that my two young sons would be ashamed of me, once they were old enough to read and understand the horrors that I had committed.

During this time, I leaned heavily on my writer friends, who made statements such as: “Congratulations. Now you’re a real writer because your family hates you.” And at my darkest moments, I morbidly and angrily relished the fact that my family’s rejection would give me not only more to write about, but also the motivation-propeller of needing to write.

My mom spoke up first. Swinging between pride and disappointment, she declared that I had hurt her, whether fictionalized or not, since the stories drew on a shared painful time in our lives, rekindling all sorts of troublesome memories.

Apparently, she read the stories aloud while her husband drove them to and from their two homes and various golf courses, pausing only to shed tears and mutter, “Oh, no; no, no, no, no.”

Despite my apologies (“I never meant to hurt you, that wasn’t my intention; no one wants to hurt their mother!”), and my insistence on the fictionalized nature of the stories, my mom continues to feel deeply wounded, and she vocalizes it, especially after a few glasses of wine—lashing me with guilt. Yet she keeps a file with all my reviews and articles, and has given copies of Drift to her friends.

For our mutual comfort, Drift is already becoming an off-limits topic, relegated to the Siberia of other tender subjects, such as politics.

My dad is a born again Christian who doesn’t see R-rated movies on principle. Despite our differences, we have maintained a loving relationship, and I dreaded its loss. An initial reaching out by me was followed by a blunt email that he was “still processing and not ready to talk”; and then, finally, he contacted me by phone.

His first question—“Are you okay?”—led me to wonder if he imagined that I might be injecting heroin in alleyways or having unsafe sex with multiple partners, both male and female. My parents don’t read literary stories. Drift, to its credit, crawled off the page and lodged itself in life. I scared him.

Reality, for both parents, blurred with non-reality: they read themselves and others in fiction, and the autobiographical portions of the book that I fretted over sailed over their heads.

Dad: “Remember when we had that conversation about the birds and the bees at the park? From your story? I certainly wish it had gone better.”

Me: “Dad, that never happened. It’s fiction. I made it up.”

Dad: “Well, it very well could have happened.”

That first phone conversation with my dad after he read and processed Drift was one of the most harrowing conversations of my life (and I imagine his). But we hashed out our feelings, and the subject of Drift’s content has not been brought up again, immediately and permanently landing itself in Siberia. To my great relief, we continue to have a relationship.

Aside from my parents, the most surprising and disappointing negative reaction came from a close friend, who lectured me on the nature of the creative process for writers, despite the fact that she’s not a writer. Her problem sprouted from two juicy sentences of dialogue in one of the least autobiographical of my stories, taken from a real-life conversation I had had with a mutual friend. (I had run the story by the mutual friend: she did not have a problem with the dialogue, and she loved the story.)

I was told that genuine writing does not draw on autobiographical elements; that the true mark of a gifted writer is that his or her fiction is completely fabricated, purely from the imagination. Despite my protestations, my listing of the endless well-known writers who feed off their lives, my insistence on the fictional nature of the stories (and in particular that story), she would not budge. I gave my friend the blender theory. I explained that the essential emotions and truth did come from a deep core of reality, but that the stories themselves were fictional. She disagreed, and we could not find common ground.

Mourning the change of a deeply important friendship, not once did I question her lack of authority on the subject. I may not like the negative reactions and disapproval, the guessing as to what’s true and what’s not, the labeling and blurring of fiction and nonfiction, but since I wrote Drift, I have to live with the repercussions. I can’t control how people read the stories, nor do I want to. And so far I don’t regret writing what’s important to me, even when it causes trouble.

is the author of The Little Brother. She is also the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award and the Story Prize and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle.


  1. Wow, really fascinating article! I often wonder about how my family would respond to the things I’ve written and have given them the magazine my poems were published in. They didn’t really seem to notice when it was about them, but I’m not sure why. Unfortunately, they really had something to say about the poems that featured sex! I think a novel would be a different thing all together. Like you said, it’s a blender, and that’s really the best way to describe it. There are some things in my life that I don’t think I would be able to avoid writing about because they’ve completely influenced the way I see the world. But I also know it would hurt some of my family. Maybe one day we’ll actually find out, I guess I should finally write that novel, huh?

  2. Wonderful essay. I think one of the things that separates real life from fiction is that fiction burrows beneath the facade. That’s an uncomfortable place for most people, most families. But that is precisely the reason we read, to learn the truth about lives. I loved the stories in Drift. Thanks for being such a brave writer, Victoria.

  3. Great essay… I’m dreading this for when I *hopefully* get published one day. My mom has wanted to read some of my short stories I’ve written, but I refuse to. Would rather only cross that bridge when I have to!

  4. Great essay. It’s a difficult problem. I try to keep my fiction as fictional as possible, and in fact go out of my way to avoid basing any character on people I know in real life, and I STILL run into this: some time ago I asked a fellow writer/ex-boyfriend to read an early draft of a novel, and for a few days afterwards we had duelling Facebook statuses. His read: “[his name] is reading a manuscript of a novel by an ex-girlfriend, trying to ignore all of the unpleasant references to himself.” Mine read: “Emily swears that it’s a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.”

    People look for themselves in books written by people they know, and they seem to find themselves there whether the author put them there or not.

  5. It’s interesting that your parents’ memories began to blur with scenes from the book. The problem of dredging up old issues seems unique to writers. I have a hard time imaging a composer or choreographer having to go through the same thing.

    The pure imagination bit is strange. Authors get criticized for both relying too heavily on their lives and placing characters in situations the authors have not experienced themselves.

  6. I was once confronted by a friend asking if what I’d written about her and her boyfriend in my novel was true. I admitted to her I had based the characters on the two of them, but what happened in the book was just a moment or a feeling I had created to show the main character’s mental state. It was not at all indicative of how I felt about her or her boyfriend as my friends. I’ve had my mom read into things that just weren’t there. Then I’ve had other people say: “This must be based on real people,” when it’s totally fabricated.
    Who said all fiction is memoir? And what about a book like On The Road, whose original manuscript had all the real names of the people who were “characters”? Is that a totally immoral work of art?
    Personally, as I’ve gone on, I’ve tried to get farther away from mining my real life, but nuggets of it creep in, usually as jumping off points.

  7. I’m the same way: my writing is a blender of the real and fake, except even the fake is not fake, since even the false is true–does that make sense? But my emotions are truly the basis for my fictionalized work.

    Anyhow, nice post.

  8. Fantastic article! The points it raises about autobiographical fiction – “how much is true?” – are very valid, and Drift will likely pose your biographer quite a conundrum!

    Anyway, thanks for writing this!

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