A few more words from David Kalish, a writer of short stories, plays, and the new novel, The Opposite of Everything.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Debunking the Reality of My Fiction
My new novel is the opposite in many respects of my life on which it's partly based
As my novel The Opposite of Everything marches toward publication – it hits bookstores on March 11, and became available to Kindle users this week — I’d like to get a couple things off my chest.
I never wore a nose ring or pierced my skin for decorative purposes.
I never went Gothic.
My father never pushed me off a bridge, even accidentally.
My mother does not speak in a Yiddish accent and embraces my wife’s Hispanic culture.
My wife and I never tried to conceive a baby at my father’s home with his help.
My father supported me during my health and marital problems, and showed up for my police showdown with my first wife – the opposite, in some ways, of how the father character is depicted in my novel.
At my second wedding, I never canceled the caterers, never corralled guests to help cook, and never replaced the priest with Buddhist monks.
I hate heavy metal music.
I could go on with this list for a long time. Because it turns out that my novel, The Opposite of Everything, is the opposite in many respects of my life on which it’s partly based.
All fiction writers draw from real-life experiences for material, some more than others. But novelists with a rich past are in a particular bind. Like me. Back twenty years ago, in one week flat, I learned I had cancer and required surgery to remove my thyroid, lymph nodes, and a sliver of trachea. As all this was happening, my first marriage fell apart.
Writing about one’s own troubles can be overwhelming. You’re forced to revisit all the ways life hurt you and those around you. Lots of writers do it, of course – bookshelves and Amazon are crammed with tear-extracting cancer memoirs. But my own temperament is different. When I first sat down to write, I couldn’t stomach reading back my own words. The words “predictable” and “melodramatic” sprang to mind. Too many sentences sounded sappy. My characters felt like stick figures manufactured to highlight milestones on my journey.
My life felt too hot to handle. So I distanced myself from it. I told the story in third-person. I replaced real names with offbeat ones (“I” became Daniel Plotnick). I searched for humor in tragedy, stretched truths for dramatic effect, and made characters do crazy things their real-life counterparts would never consider.
In reality, for instance, my first wife had a predictably strong reaction to my diagnosis of cancer. With no treatment on the horizon, she supported me in her own way. One thing she did was buy several pounds of green tea, touting the benefits of anti-oxidants to keep me healthy. For my novel, I amped up her reaction. She shops in a panic at the health food store. Bursts through the door laden with groceries. “Handfuls of dark green leaves. Flax. Wheatgrass. A vial of primrose elixir. Pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, dried pomegranate. The kitchen filled up with the ripe odor of vegetables and nuts and fruit on the verge of turning. Plotnick gazed back down at the crossword puzzle to divert his attention from the hub-bub, but a large Kale leaf now blocked the Across clues.”
In reality, my first wife gained some weight amid our craziness. But for the novel, the wife character gains a lot. As a writer, I upped the ante. Troubled by his wife’s weight gain, Plotnick goes Gothic. In a climactic scene, he walks drunkenly through the door dressed in his black duds and stumbles across her as she binges on premium ice cream.
Of course, I face the danger that readers will see more in my book than actually’s there. Here’s the question that strikes fear in my heart – and in the hearts of all novelists mining their personal past: Nice book, but why did you make me look so bad?
So when the question came to me last year from someone I won’t name, my gut felt sliced open like a watermelon. But I’m just doing my job as a fiction writer, I thought.
So consider this blog post my effort to make a point of clarity. To pre-emptively answer any questions that might come up. Toward that end, I hereby reprint the first paragraph of my Acknowledgment from my novel:
“This book is a work of fiction, pure and simple. As fiction authors do, I drew for material from my own experience, and went to town with it. My overriding goal was to create a fully realized story, rich with drama, comedy, and a narrative arc. Toward that end, the characters I invented to populate my story are precisely that – invented. Any perceived resemblances to real people are coincidental to my goals as a novelist.”
That said, I will always mine my past for material. Currently working on a second novel, and a musical comedy The Gringo Who Stole Christmas, which will be performed at Proctors in December, I stretch things for impact. I look to situations where comedy reveals painful truths about dying, broken hearts, and busted dreams. I free myself from the shackles of facts. As long as I am able, I’ll write my way out of this pickle I’m in.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everything, which will be published in March and is available for purchase now on Kindle.