It’s one of the first questions in my FAQ because it really is asked frequently: some variation on “Did the story in Empress of the World happen to you?” My answer: No. If it had, it would be an autobiography, not a novel. But it was certainly inspired by people and events from my life.
It’s that caveat in the answer, the yes in the no, that’s always intriguing. I’m experiencing it now from the other side as I read Danit Brown’s short story collection, Ask for a Convertible. She grew up in Ann Arbor, like I did. We went to the same school for a while as teenagers. I remember the science teacher mispronouncing her name. I remember wanting to get to know her better and being, as was often the case with me then, too shy to try.
The collection is excellent — funny and poignant, with subtle and smart links between the stories. And yet, as I read, caught up in the characters’ lives as a reader, admiring Brown’s prose as a writer, I also felt, sometimes, like I’d gone back in time to eavesdrop. Wait, who’s Sanjay? I found myself wondering, as if some version of him is bound to have existed. Or I disputed details: It wasn’t the class president, it was the valedictorian, and she didn’t have to resign. Leg warmers and acid-wash, yes, but didn’t you also see how much the popular girls loved Forenza sweaters?
What is it that makes readers so suspicious of a writer’s ability to make things up? I imagine the only folks who get to escape this are genre writers — I assume no one asks Holly about her faerie blood, or Mette about her animal magic, or Libba about the weather in the Realms this time of year. But maybe I’m wrong…