Columns > Published on December 17th, 2020

On Using Personal History As Fiction

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Some years ago - eleven to be exact - I was just coming out of a twelve month period of personal and legal hell... better known as a bad divorce. Now, the expression ‘a good divorce’ may be something of an oxymoron... but as the two brilliant women lawyers handling my case in London informed me once it was all done-and-dusted (to use a rather appropriate anglicism), mine had been something of a doozy. As any professional writer will tell you (this one included) resilience and perseverance are essential components when it comes to the long slog of writing a novel. The same could be said for getting through a period when the entire foundation of your life has been upended and you find yourself in something approaching freefall. So I continued to force myself to write a minimum of five hundred words per day through this vertiginous moment - actually completing a draft of my then ninth novel, Leaving the World, just after the divorce was finally settled.

And being in a rather vulnerable state I also managed to talk myself into falling in love. She was a forty year old woman living in Paris (where I have a pied-a-terre): tall, beautiful, passionate, vastly intelligent. From the outset she seemed as smitten as I was. But she did tell me very early on in our romance (which was conducted in French): 

“Avec des hommes dans le passé j’etais très difficile, très dûr. Je les ai piquè tout-le-temps. Mais avec toi tout sera different. Parc e que je suis si amoroeuse de toi”.

(With all past men I was very difficult, very hard. I had to sting them all the time. But with you it will be different. Because I am so in love with you.)

When it comes to matters of the heart - especially those that arrive at a difficult moment in our lives - we see what we want to see. I was guilty of such romantic stupidity. After an initial two months of true happiness the reproaches began. I was out too much in the evening, haunting cinemas, concert halls (I am a classical music junkie), jazz clubs. So too the blow-ups over nothing, followed by her tears of sorrow about having been so difficult. And then there was her need to tell me excruciating details about her past lovers. After four months I fled - and cursed my folly for getting involved with someone whom I knew from a few weeks into the relationship has some very serious pathological issues.

In articulating my own romance-induced myopia at a particularly vulnerable moment in my life, it turned out that I was speaking for many a reader who’d also make the same mistake.

One of the central rules of life as articulated by the great mid-century Chicago novelist Nelson Algren (who for many years was Simone de Beauvoir’s lover) was: "Never sleep with someone whose problems are bigger than yours." I had done just that. But I am also a believer in another writerly truism: everything is material. Around a year later, when a French magazine asked me to write a short story for them, I knew I wanted to confront that very human need to fall in love at a juncture when love is so desperately craved, yet with the knowledge that one was walking into the metaphoric equivalent of an empty elevator shaft. The story which came out of this experience, "The Mistake", was also published digitally by Amazon as an instant Kindle read - and I received much feedback from readers. In articulating my own romance-induced myopia at a particularly vulnerable moment in my life, it turned out that I was speaking for many a reader who’d also make the same mistake.

We read to discover that we are not alone. Over the course of twenty-four books, I have rarely written out of direct experience (outside a book of philosophy, All the Big Questions... With No Attempts At Any Answers - which was also something of a memoir). Why did I make an exception with this short story? Because I changed enough details (my narrator was a Franco-American lawyer, all the details of the woman and her background had been carefully altered to mask her true identity) to allow me to treat the events in a fictional manner. Most tellingly, the very fact that the lawyer narrator of the story clearly admits that he is guilty of not seeing what was directly in front of him at the beginning of this romance - indeed what the woman herself told him she was ultimately about - made ‘the mistake’ very much his own. Was I admitting my own mistake? As it wasn’t “Douglas Kennedy Novelist” narrating the story, it wasn’t a direct admission. But in another way, I was doing just that - and I wrote the story to explore how I had talked myself into such a muddle. And yet it was still a work of fiction.

In a recent fourteen-part digital masterclass that I gave for The Artists Academy, I devote a chapter to using that which has happened to you as the basis of all fiction. 

Even if it is not what the French call un roman à clef (a novel lifted entirely from your life) the fact remains: all fiction is, by its very nature, autobiographical. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t lived the events in your story. You are, in some manner, always bringing the experience of your life to bear on the narrative. An example: my 2004 novel, A Special Relationship, is, among other things, about a post-natal depression and a monstrous custody battle that ensues thereafter. It is narrated by the woman in the throes of this nightmare; an American living in London. Now (surprise-surprise) I have never suffered a post-natal depression. But I did spend many hours interviewing a woman who had been through such a horror show, just as I discussed the matter with several doctors. After that... well, I basically winged it... trying to think myself into the mindset of my narrator, and also bringing to bear on the story my own experience as an American living in the UK (as I did for twenty-four years). 

I also used the moments when I too had struggled with despair (of a more reactive variety than that which had befallen my narrator). Many readers who’d been through a post-natal depression informed me that I’d gotten the inner landscape of this terrifying condition absolutely spot-on. Which was both pleasing and a little baffling to me at the same time - because I was just imagining what it must be like for my narrator to be trapped in this labyrinth of desperation. Yes, it was crucial that I had talked extensively with someone who had weathered this horrendous experience (even using many of the details she told me - like slamming her head against the tiles in her Chelsea kitchen in an attempt to get the monstrous voices telling her to kill her infant son out of her head). But the story I told in my novel was far divorced from her own and was also infused with all my ambivalence at the time about being a Yank in London. 

Joan Didion got it absolutely right when she once noted that writers are always selling somebody out. Or as Flaubert noted: “Emma Bovary, c’est moi”. But though Flaubert grew up and lived for much of his life in the northern city of Rouen (near to which the drama of Madame Bovary unfolds), he himself had never been an insecure, ill-educated, somewhat charming housewife married to a provincial doctor. Nor, like Emma, did he seek refuge from domestic tedium in the arms of a visiting military officer... with disastrous results. So how, as many have asked, could Flaubert claim that he was Emma Bovary? I understood his declaration immediately: because you don’t have to be the person you are writing about to invest that person with so much of yourself. 

In fact, I would argue that, after twenty-four books, I have come to realize that a kind subconscious transference (to borrow a psychoanalytic phrase) comes to play when writing fiction. You might not be writing from direct experience, but you are bringing to bear on the story all you have lived, experienced, considered. More tellingly, your own past and world-view must inevitably shape the narrative. Consider, say, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. It is, for me, one of his key novels. It concerns a solitary novelist living in South London during the Blitz, involved in an increasingly possessive affair with the wife of one of his closest friends. Yes, Greene himself had lived for a spell in Clapham (which indeed is in South London). Yes, he had a longstanding affair with a married woman named Catherine Walston. And yes, the novel’s thematic strands of Catholic guilt and spiritual mysticism undoubtedly came out of Greene’s own experiences as someone who was received into the Catholic Church while at Oxford, and who remained a practicing Catholic for the rest of his life. But given all that... could The End of the Affair be considered an autobiographical novel? To which the only answer to such a question can be: yes and no.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: to a writer everything is material. 

As such, even the worst that befalls you can be used in fiction. But I would advise all writers to consider using the merde that has blown into their respective lives - or which they themselves have had a hand perpetuating - in a discerning way. Revenge fiction always carries with it a subtext of bitterness. It’s the literary equivalent of halitosis: spitting out bile without imposing a critical distance between you and the events that happened to find something interesting to say about that ongoing dilemma called the human condition. As such I have found ways of writing indirectly about my deeply unhappy parents, my two ex-wives, and certain romantic disasters...yet doing so without every writing directly about that which actually transpired. Because, of course, the truth is: when it comes to recounting things that have happened to you there is no truth. There are just conflicting versions of that which transpired. And you, the writer, are not supposed to tell the truth. Just a good story that will hopefully illuminate the way we try to connect with each other... and often fail to do so.

If I may therefore indulge in a broad stroke... whether it be a novel set in Sophoclean Athens or among hipsters trying to find their way in Bushwick, there is always one abiding theme underscoring all fiction: the way we have always - and will always - make a mess of this narrative called life. Which is why - even in the middle of a crisis - a proper writer is always making notes. And why perhaps a larger rule of romantic thumb should be: “Never sleep with a novelist.”

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About the author

Douglas Kennedy is the author of fourteen previous novels, including the international bestsellers The Big PictureThe Pursuit of HappinessLeaving the World, and The Moment. His work has been translated into twenty-two languages, and in 2007 he received the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Most recently, Douglas has created a masterclass that focuses on the craft of writing. He divides his time among London, New York, and Montreal, and has two children.

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