Friendships with authors should carry a warning: anything you say or do risks ending up in print and should be shared with caution. I mentioned in my last blog post that my early magazine stories were often inspired by my personal romantic disasters. Changing humiliation to triumph and inventing nasty fictional misfortunes on London lotharios who dumped me was hugely satisfying to my wounded pride, much like Nora Ephron who got revenge on her unfaithful husband, Carl Bernstein, with her bestselling novel Heartburn. But when your nearest and dearest start prefacing conversations with ‘If I tell you this, promise you won’t use it in a story’, even a fledgling writer has to learn discretion.
Writers turn to real events all the time for inspiration. Stuff happens to people that your imagination couldn’t make up even if you squeezed it through a juice press. Alice Sebold used a young girl’s murder as inspiration for The Lovely Bones and Agatha Christie based Murder On The Orient Express on the kidnapping and killing of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. It’s said that in Hollywood if any tragedy happens, literary agents, like vultures, arrive hot on the heels of the ambulance, hoping to buy the movie rights.
For that very reason, as a writer, friendships can be perilous. You’re writing a book about a woman suffering a miscarriage and suddenly the same thing happens to your best friend. Even as she’s sobbing out details that mirror the events you’ve so painstakingly penned, your evil self wants to take notes while your empathetic side agonizes that you need to ditch the whole project. Who wants to end up like the protagonist in Thomas Wolf’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again where friends and family of a successful author run him out of his hometown, bitter at the betrayal of their sins and indiscretions?
So where do you, as a writer, draw the line? Is it out of order to use a friend’s (or friend of a friend of a friend’s) tragedy, triumphs or outrageous personality in your fiction? Is it OK or merely callous if you ask permission first? Do you run rampant with the juicy facts or disguise that shocking saga so cannily that even Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t recognize the crime? With our first novel, How To Survive Your Sisters we were absolutely sure the four sisters couldn’t be traced to any particular person in our family. And yet one of our siblings was slightly huffy, claiming she recognized her faults in each of the protagonists
Besides, what if something truly extraordinary happened to someone you knew – newspaper fodder that someone else is bound to pick up (as opposed to all those boring strangers at parties who insist their biography should be your next masterpiece)? Like being the hostage of a crazy gunman? Or behind the wheel of a car that plunges into an icy river?
I mean, really. Obviously friendships are paramount and good taste precludes you from brandishing a contract and asking for an option as she’s still shivering under her blankets, clutching a large brandy. But given a month or two to get over the shock – once she’s warmed up a little – wouldn’t you be denying your art if you simply passed it by?
Just curious. It’s an issue all authors face. How do you deal with it?