Recommended Authors/ Writing

The lure of presumed autobiography

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…

You Might Also Like

  • Michelle
    September 14, 2008 at 2:30 am

    I had a similar experience watching the film “The Soloist” about a month ago. It’s based on the columns of an LA Times writer whom I’ve read on a regular basis for the last four or five years. It was difficult at first to let go of the factual knowledge gleaned from reading his columns, since, of course, they’ve fictionalized him somewhat to add depth to the film’s theme and create a more linear, cohesive story within the limits of a 100-odd-minute movie.

    At the same time, though, it was compelling to watch scenes that really did happen brought to cinematic life. Now if I could only get Robert Downey Jr.’s voice out of my head when I’m reading the newspaper.

  • Sara
    September 14, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    I just saw a trailer for the Soloist! Are you reviewing now, or did the movie come to LA before the rest of the world?

  • Michelle
    September 14, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Are you reviewing now

    That would be fun, but no. There was a preview screening back in August, and as I basically *am* the target audience for this movie, I was more than happy to oblige. I hear they’ll be doing out-of-town previews, too (presumably, to test it with people who are less likely to have been reading Steve Lopez’ columns), so keep your eyes peeled for people with clip-boards standing around in front of your local movie house.

    And, oh my god, reading back over my comment. I’ve been writing grants too long.