How much of my book is true? I could say ‘all of it,’ I could say ‘none of it,’ and both answers would be correct.
In order to create real characters that you, the reader, will believe, I must make them as true as possible. That does not mean basing them on anyone in particular, though I happily borrow snippets of stories and characteristics from friends, family and total strangers. But ultimately, the more I work with those characters, the more they evolve into themselves, which means they spin away from me, beyond what I knew or thought I knew about them to a place where it seems that they are in control of who they are and I am merely charged with capturing them on paper. If I seem mysterious about it, I don’t mean to be, but I myself cannot completely understand how it all works so I can’t expect anyone else to.
A case in point is Teo Levin, the eighty-five-year-old protagonist of my new novel, When We Danced on Water. He is a choreographer and former dancer, but even the company he directs – the Tel Aviv Ballet – is a product of my imagination. I provided him with a history, a career, lovers, a creative spark, a range of emotions and reactions, a face, a body, and in turn, he has kept me in line, checking some of my crazier or duller impulses. (He was originally far more cantankerous than his final, in-print version; but the grouchily perfectionist ballet master was too much of a cliché, and I am grateful to Teo for pointing that out to me.) To my delight and my frustration, however, people keep asking me to reveal on what real person he is modeled. That is delightful because it means I have made him real enough to believe, and frustrating because it should be of no consequence.
Similarly, I am flattered when people ask how long and where I danced. (I didn’t.) Dance, which is Teo’s medium and art form, takes a prominent place in the novel, and I had the task of describing it from without, as an observer, but also from within, from what Teo experiences when he moves his body to music. For the former I interviewed a marvelous dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, and for the latter I took dance lessons and learned the basics of ballet so that I could know what Teo was feeling when he stretched his toes into a sharp point or floated his arms above his head. I made the lie real for myself; only then could it be real for the reader.
It feels impossible to plot the course of my life, with all the reversals and vicissitudes and surprises and changes. But perhaps this one element – my joy of embellishing the truth – has its own continuum, from those detail-rich stories I made up for grammar-school classmates willing to listen, to the detail-rich novels I write for readers willing to read.
In my life as an adult I have tried to remain scrupulously truthful, largely, I suppose, as a reaction to all those childhood lies. And yet, when I tell stories that really happened, I cannot seem to control the impulse to elaborate, to add color and texture to the picture I’m drawing for my listener. It is an occupational hazard I can live with, and one that has served me well.
Evan Fallenberg’s most recent novel, When We Danced on Water, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
I am probably a writer of fiction (as opposed to nonfiction) because from a very early age I loved to tell elaborate lies with convincing details. In the first grade I affected a British accent to tell the story of my birth in the back of a Volkswagen in London; in the seventh grade I concocted a potion of hand cream and food coloring to give myself a tan following a non-existent family trip to Hawaii, where our family (according to the extended version of my lie) was going to be relocating.
I was a child with curiosity and wanderlust and a colorful, lively imagination. My lies were not malicious and were only vaguely self-serving; mainly they existed to add glamour to a life that felt too ordinary. In bed at night I spoke to myself in faux French, puffing out my lips and making a lot of zh sounds. It follows that during the daylight hours I would wish to spice things up.
It is important to note that my lies never contained magical elements. No one ever flew or was transported in time machines. Instead, I took the everyday materials of real life (we actually had a little Volkswagen when I was six) and reworked the story, the surroundings. I took my real self and removed him from Ohio (and usually America), gave him the ability to speak many languages, dressed him in fancy clothes and then…well, then, my imagination could take me only as far as books and television had brought me by that time.
My lies brought attentive audiences, from whom I learned the art of brevity, and the need for credible plot twists and satisfying surprises. I was keenly aware of eyes glazing over or people wandering away, so I did my best to rivet them to where they were standing. My lies got me into trouble – one such lie caused my demotion from valedictorian to salutatorian of my high school graduating class – and out of trouble as well, as when, in the fourth grade, our substitute teacher found a nasty poem I had penned about her circulating in class, and in order to gain her sympathy I told her a horrifying story about cancer and death and sadness in our family, none of which was (yet) true.
I am lucky to have found a healthy channel for my need to invent. And like those early lies, much of what I make up for my books has elements of truth to it. Which is why I am both bothered and sympathetic when asked how much, or what, in my novels is true.
Come back all week to read more of Evan Fallenberg’s post. His new novel, When We Danced on Water, is now available.