No, Really. It’s Not Meeee!

Tell the truth. When you read a novel, is the protagonist the author on the back cover?

I’m asking, because more than three times already, someone has slipped and called me by the name of the main character in my new piece, “Grace Notes.” Oops.

Okay, she’s a Jamaican woman who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. These are my unescapables. I’m protesting into the wind, I know., but she is so not me. In a way she’s almost a stranger. Odd to say, clearly. Yet she’s a woman I’ve seen on the streets. I’ve watched her on a plane. I’ve watched her buy magazines. She’s this tall and too-lean, brown woman, younger than me (naturally), prissy, who never swears. She seldom says what she’s thinking; she forgets to breathe.

…I believe in my heart
that I would
acknowledge
if the character were me…

It’s a little off-putting only because of the events that happen in the story. Grace Notes is a kind of domestic, literary novel about sex (there’s a fair amount of it), and the fallout of one brief sexual encounter. Sometimes when I’ve come together with folks for a critical reading, there’s an exaggerated dancing of eyebrows at the naughty bits. Which has prompted me, embarrassed, to remind folks, Hey, now, guys, this ain’t me. I just know, though, that everybody’s picturing me there in that bed. Or wherever.

I feel sorrier for my poor husband. People ask me about the book at parties. I give a thumbnail of the plot line. And without fail—without fail—someone will turn to my husband and say, Uh-oh, what do you think about this, then? My Beloved, smiling very broadly, gives them his standard line: I’ve already told her if the guy in her book has anything resembling me, I’m calling the lawyer. I’m so glad his eyes twinkle as he says it.

He needn’t worry. I don’t think. The husband in the book is a PR guy, a big ole sports-obsessed, Midwestern Italian man, impulsive as all hell. Not even close, dude.

You know, I believe in my heart that I would acknowledge if the character were me, or if the circumstances were particular to me. Fact is, this novel spored while I was a juror in a murder trial. I wondered about the wife of one of the witnesses, the conversations they would have to have. It never crossed my mind that people would assume it’s my own damn life.

Perhaps it’s an inevitability that people will assume your fiction is autobiographical. Here’s a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Wiegand in his review of “Miss Austen Regrets” on PBS’ “Masterpiece:”

What we know for sure about [Jane] Austen’s 41 years on the planet comes from the few letters her sister failed to burn after the author’s death and from a memoir written by Austen’s nephew many years later. With such a dearth of facts, it has been left to her readers to fill in the blanks with whatever clues they believe they find in her six novels.

Jesus. Thank God he goes on to say, though, “In the end, however, they always have to wonder if their construct is true or not.”

Then just yesterday, tooling around, I stumbled across this article by Sue Miller, Virtual Reality: The Perils of Seeking a Novelist’s Facts in Her Fiction. She opens her essay with:

Before my last book tour, I made myself memorize a quotation from an interview with John Cheever that began, “It seems to me that any confusion between autobiography and fiction debases fiction.” Thus girded, armored, I hoped to silence forever the questioner who sits there in the third row waiting to ask, “How much of your work is autobiographical?”

Maybe I’ll just shut up now. And eat it.

[tags] David Wiegand, Jane Austen, Grace Notes, Sue Miller, John Cheever [/tags]