My next post will appear Friday, September 7.
If you’re in the neighborhood, mark your calendar for Sept. 13, 7 p.m.: Why There Are Words, 333 Caledonia, Sausalito. I’d love to see some of you there!
A few months ago, I stumbled upon Penelope Lively’s novel The Photograph. I loved its sharp psychological portraits, its elegant and economic sentences, its going on for pages and pages in the minds of its characters (something I’m always trying to do without making my readers scream, “Action, please!”).
When I returned to the library to pick up another Lively novel, I chose—from the ten or twelve books on the shelf—Making It Up. I was intrigued by the insistence, in the Preface and repeated at the top of the front flap, that “This book is fiction.”
Why wouldn’t it be, I thought? “It is anti-memoir.” All the more intriguing, with all that statement implies—and what’s wrong with memoir, anyway? Anti-memoir sounds so, well, anti. “My own life servers as the prompt,” Lively continues; “I have … written the alternative stories.”
In eight stories, Lively introduces us to a piece of her biography: the young girl who fled Cairo in face of the German advance during World War II; an early interest in archeology; a love of books; the early influence of Homer, made all the more compelling by her own first name’s starring role in the narrative. After introducing us to the prompt, Lively then gives us the novelist’s re-working of what might have been, what should have been, what could have been.
In this way, the book provides a meditation on fiction, on the paths the imagination takes, on the deviations and wanderings. How do we know when we’re on the right track? The answer, surely, lies not in adherence to biography, since the demands of successful fiction are not the outlines of “real life.” And yet, as much as Lively’s book got me thinking about the choices I make for my characters (and the endless re-thinking about those choices), I love how she girds her sophisticated reflection on narrative with the primal, elemental urge of any writer. To get it right.
As Lively writes in the introduction to her version of Penelope and Ulysses: “I seized on [Homer’s Odyssey] and its furnishings, and juggled them around to make a version that was personally satisfying and more relevant to my own circumstances.” As a girl, reading the ancient story, she had found the “story line not entirely satisfactory.” Penelope, for one, is not a beauty like her cousin Helen, and Odyssey has red hair and short legs. “And that addiction to weaving is tiresome, let alone the shilly-shallying over the suitors. Some reconstruction was in order, it seemed to me.” Not only was I nodding as I read Lively’s words, but she’d made me laugh out loud (shilly-shallying over the suitors, indeed!).
To make a version that was personally satisfying and more relevant to my own circumstances. Some reconstruction was in order.
Writing successful fiction needs more than that, of course, but I can’t think of a better motivating force.
Why do you write fiction? What alternative lives have you lived out on the page? What books have impacted how you think about story-making?