Friday, May 05, 2017

Fictionalizing your life, or how autobiographical is your fiction?

I’ve been proofing Mattie, the first adult novel I ever wrote and winner of the 1988 Western Writers of America Spur Award for best traditional novel. It’s been available on Kindle forever and done well at 99 centers--#64 today in Kindle ebooks, Genre Fiction, Medical. I’m going to post it to other platforms and thought after almost thirty years it deserved another proofing.

Mattie’s story is loosely based on the life of Georgia Arbuckle Fix, a pioneer woman physician in western Nebraska at the turn of the twentieth century. I didn’t know at the time that Mari Sandoz had also fictionalized Fix’s life in Miss Morissa, and the comparison by loyal Sandoz devotees was not kind to me.

It’s intimidating to re-read something I wrote all those years back. My style is different—the 167-page book is all long chapters and lots of space breaks, and did I really begin every other sentence with “So”? I’m correcting only egregious errors; why mess with success?

The content is more interesting though. I was seven or eight years out of a marriage that started wonderfully and eventually disintegrated. Mattie goes through the same experience two-thirds of the way through the novel; her once-passionate marriage is gradually chipped away until she and her husband, Em Jones, can barely stand each other. Mattie’s retrospective wisdom about the situation struck me—I didn’t realize that I had learned that much from my own marriage, but, darn, sometimes Mattie really seems to understand life. Wish I’d put that knowledge to work years ago

At the time I wrote, I was raising teen-age daughters, with all the angst that involves. The angst is reflected in Mattie’s rebellious daughter, Nora. Only Nora never reaches the wonderful reconciliation my girls did—they are now best friends with each other and with me. When I wrote, we hadn’t reached that reconciliation either, and the angst was much too familiar.

Late in the book, Mattie takes into her home and bed a drifter named Eli, skilled carpenter, a good man, but not one to settle down. I took a week off from work to write the last chapter. The words came in a rush as though someone was channeling me who knew the story. Eli simply rides off after a while, moving on as is his nature, leaving Mattie devastated again—and puzzled. At the time, I was seeing a man I liked well enough to envision a future with him—he liked my kids and wasn’t scared of them, rare in suitors. He was gentle, kind and fun. But as I wrote those last pages, I had a flash of clarity: he too would be moving on. He was no longer going to be a part of my life story. We were together that night—celebrating our joint birthdays, I recall—and I was sad. But I couldn’t tell him why.

Scary thought, especially for mystery writers, if your writing not only reflects your past but predicts your future.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone.


Lourdes Venard said...

How interesting! Ann Patchett says that everyone turns their lives into stories. That's what you must have done -- and you knew in your gut what your future was going to bring!

Judy Alter said...

Thanks, Lourdes. Yeah, I did know and I was in denial--so it came out in my writing.

Jude Walsh said...

I loved this post Judy! I think all fiction is informed by the life of the writer combined with imagination and creativity. Glad that first book is standing the test of time, says a great deal about you and your writing chops!

Kaye George said...

I wonder if others would be able to get the insights you have from early writing. Very interesting topic!

Judy Alter said...


Judy Alter said...

JUde, I think you'/re right about our lives informing our fiction. My daughter used to explain to people that my first mystery was "highly autobiographical." Perhaps that's why one cliché says to "write what you know." I wonder though about the occasional 18-year-old whose debut novel is hailed as a literary masterpiece. What do people know at that age?

Judy Alter said...

What a wonderful post, Judy. A lovely insight about your younger self's wisdom, and how you have grown as a writer. It's great that you are continuing to allow that book to reflect the growth, and to keep reaching readers. Clearly it's a story that resonates. Thanks for sharing this.

posted by Susan Schoch; erased in error by Judy Alter:-)

Thanks so much for the kind words, Suan.