With the popularity of non-fiction, self-help and memoir, is there room for good old storytelling anymore?
There are many reasons to choose fiction over other genres. When I started a book about my mother’s death, I assumed it would be in first person. A memoir. But after fifty pages, I realized I couldn’t write it that way. The story in my mind was bigger than my mother and me. It was about Death with a capital D. I needed to include things that hadn’t actually happened and tie in things I discovered later but hadn’t known at the time. I was going to create a book about Death, using the circumstances of my mother’s passing as the frame. And that would make it fiction, of course.
Once a writer decides on a topic, the next, and arguably the most important step, is to decide who will tell the story: a narrator, the author or a character. The decision depends on the genre and topic. Death is a difficult subject. When I was researching my novel, I found all kinds of non-fiction on dying, but not much fiction. The non-fiction, while it had a base of sales, was not what you would call popular reading. Many people find it hard to talk or read about death. This was another reason I knew my story had to be fiction; I needed to make the topic accessible.
Fiction opens the door for interpretation over judgment. It allows us to talk about taboo subjects in code, removing any stigma because it’s a private conversation. A hypothetical situation isn’t threatening at all—we can toss it in the air without worrying about it falling and crashing into our reality. We can juggle it with imaginary people without incurring the danger of empathy.
Until two years ago, I’d never been to a cocktail party where people stood around talking about dying. It’s just not polite. But it happens all the time now when people ask me what my new book is about. Suddenly, it’s okay to talk about. My fictionalized Frances has become somewhat of a hero in my social circle. No one thinks of her as my mother. They relate to the questions I pose in the story instead of relating to the woman and her decision. It’s easy for people to open up and compare their feelings to hers since she doesn’t really exist.
Once people identified me as a person who can talk about a difficult topic, many of them trusted me with personal stories about losing a loved one. Each story is different, but the guilt, sadness and confusion are not unique. So my book about dying, I decided, had to include multiple points of view. It needed to include the stages of grief, which are experienced differently by different people. It had to include perspectives from different religions, times and cultures. And it wouldn’t be complete unless it exposed family roles and structure, and the unique history each child has with a parent. I couldn’t write all that as memoir because it would have limited the story to my own experience, which while it was important to me and probably to some readers, may not have provided the hook necessary to draw in a broader reader base. My goal was to engage as many people as possible in a conversation about dying in the twenty-first century.
In my mind, memoir is about the author, but fiction is about the reader. Memoir, by definition, is limited to the author’s experience and own feelings. This can be enlightening and thought-provoking, but it exists on one dimension. Fiction, on the other hand, can create an experience the reader can almost touch, one that becomes their own.