One of the questions most frequently posed to fiction writers may well be, “Did this really happen?”
Admittedly, the above claim is not the result of a statistically significant survey. It’s what my friend Stephanie K. Hopkins, who is a fiction writer, told me she and her fiction writer friends get asked all the time at readings.
“It can be frustrating because it feels like it reduces your work to biographical details,” Stephanie said, “But I do have sympathy for that question because sometimes I want to know too.”
Celia Johnson, Grand Central publishing editor and co-founder of Slice Magazine, also wanted to know, so she researched the stories behind 50 classic literary works—from children’s favorites like Charlotte’s Web and Winnie the Pooh to the usual suspects on English class syllabi, The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice—to uncover the ‘sparks of inspiration that prompted great writers to pen their famous works of literature.’
Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, released last month, reveals her findings.
The book is divided into six sections, each representing from where a writer derived his or her inspiration. For example, ‘Lightning Strikes’ is about writers who stumbled on the germ of an idea while performing ‘a mundane task’—Jules Verne ‘flipping through a newspaper,’ Tolstoy settling down for a nap, Robert Louis Stevenson painting a watercolor. ‘On the Job’ covers writers who were inspired by their professions—Gaston Leroux was touring Paris’ Palais Garnier opera house while on assignment as a journalist; Dashiell Hammett’s novels sprang from his experiences as a private investigator.
Johnson devotes three to five pages of discussion to each book, meaning the research presented is not exhaustive but more an overview, just enough either to satisfy your curiosity or whet your appetite for more. I enjoyed dipping into these stories of literary genius, and Johnson is a skilled writer. But something nagged at me as I worked my way through the book.
The categories Johnson sets up can seem kind of arbitrary. While reading each story, it occurred to me that the source of a writer’s inspiration is much more fluid than her categories suggest. When I was writing my dissertation, I encountered the problem of creating categories to organize research, in a “this is going to drive me insane, Mrs. Haversham style, except that instead of a tattered wedding dress, I’ll be wearing a tattered gap and gown” kind of way. So I understand that we need categories, otherwise the world devolves into chaos.
The problem is, then, not so much in the categories themselves but with the larger questions lurking underneath them, which is something more like: How the freak does whatever a writer experiences in her life somehow congeal into a timeless work of art?
Like most of the Really Important Questions in life—like ‘what is the meaning of life?’ and ‘why are some people such assholes?’—this one can’t really be answered.
Stephanie confirmed this for me when talking about the story behind her young adult novel, Edge of Seventeen, which follows 16-year old Arielle as she, while vacationing on Fire Island, explores her awakening sexuality in the shadow of her mother’s infidelity and abandonment.
Though her book is fiction, it has some roots in reality. Stephanie did meet a girl named Arielle on Fire Island. This girl, Stephanie noticed, though younger than the friend she was with, was more sexually aware of herself. She inhabited her body differently than did the other teen, who seemed still in childhood. Though Stephanie’s chance encounter could be said to have stoked her imagination, these details, she said, ‘are ripples on the surface of a lake.’
“What made me receptive in this particular moment? What forces were at play in my own life that made me preoccupied with adolescence?” she asked. “These questions defy definitive answers.”
“The novel was born from a confluence of events, interests, inspirations, seen and unseen things,” she continued. “I can say what I saw and experienced that influenced me, but I can never say exactly what happened there. It’s kind of like trying to describe the moment of falling in love.”
The allure of biographical information is that it satisfies our hunger to know things about public people, whether their fame is the product of penning a classic novel that connects human experiences across time and culture or because their mom’s brilliant idea to post a bunch of YouTube videos launched a teen idol. Gorging on facts seems to sate our hunger to know these people.
“But sometimes, we mistake knowing facts for knowing people,” Stephanie said. “And you can’t even really answer the ‘facts’ question either.”
No matter how vigorously we research ‘facts’ or try to engrave a bold line from truth to fiction, from lived events to Literary Event, what we can know is only ever partial, speculative.
Johnson hints at this herself in her book’s introduction. “I would hesitate,” she cautions about her stories, “to assert that any of them defines precisely what spurred an author to write.” So what, then, is to be gained from reading accounts that may themselves ‘amount to literary myths’?
According to Johnson, even though the stories we’re told may be spun by skilled storytellers (or p.r. gurus), they nevertheless ‘capture the spirit of creativity’ and ‘reveal that inspiration could be lurking around any corner.’
In this way, they remind us to be present in the world, not to underestimate the value of any experience or person that or who is part of our world. It’s good advice for writers but also, come to think of it, simply for living.