Mar 7, 2008

Heading to Belize, and Random Thought About Fake Memoirs

Here's an interesting and recently proven fact: If your flight from LAX to Miami leaves an hour late, it's possible to make up so much time in the air that you will arrive on the East Coast in UNDER FOUR HOURS. You will have to fly at close to the speed of sound, however, and will be reminded the whole way that traveling at such velocity is not only unnatural but a little unnerving.

Still. It gets you to Florida pretty damn fast.

My connecting flight to Belize leaves in about and hour and a half. And then in two hours I'll be in Belize City. It's hard to believe I'll be there so soon, after several months of prep. Most of the 29 workshop participants are landing between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. and then we'll be shuttled two hours west into the rainforest. The workshop begins tomorrow morning at 9:30.

I spoke with the legal department at Ballantine before I left, to find out what the recommended procedure is for securing permission to use people's real names in the book. Because I've got such a wacky story (which really happened, a rarity these days it seems), I want to tell it in a way that ups the authenticity quotient as much as possible, and since real people are characters I'd like to use the facts at every possible turn. We all agreed it would be off-putting to show up down there with legal release forms, especially since English isn't everyone's first language. The answer from legal was that since the experience really happened, I don't need permission to write about the characters or places by name. Still, it seems to me that it's a good idea--even though I can't imagine any of the characters would object; they all come across like heroes, I think--to give people a chance to decide if they want their names and the names of their establishments to appear in a book. I figured I'd get verbal confirmations and take lots of photos of the people I'm revisiting for futher proof of their existence. But this was all the day before the Margaret Seltzer, aka Margaret B. Jones faux-memoirist story broke. Now I'm thinking I'd better take photographs of all the characters holding the day's newspaper in one hand and a big handprinted sign in the other reading, "I exist, and I consent to having my real name used in Hope Edelman's upcoming book. Signed, me."

I may be the only nonfiction writer who hasn't yet weighed in on this newest publishing debacle. Two debacles, actually, if you count Misha Defonseca's Holocaust memoir that was recently exposed as a fake, and three if you factor in that the facts in Ishmael Beah's book are also under fire. As all memoirists know, there's always been a fuzzy line between memoir and fiction, depending as we do on the devices of fiction to shape a story from the raw material of real life, and given the inevitable impulse to tweak and twist and embellish to up the ante and make a good story just a little bit more dramatic, or make a mediocre story just a little bit less ho-hum. What first-time (and even more seasoned, I imagine) writers don't realize is that the thing that makes a good story great is not inventing details, or appropriating a false persona. What makes a good story great is, put most simply, great writing. If James Frey had been a better writer, he would have been able to write a book in which three hours in prison felt like three months. If Margaret Seltzer had been as good a writer as her initial reviews implied she was, she could have written a kickass memoir about being a white girl with aspirations of being a gangbanger, and gotten her homey friends' stories into print that way. As for Misha Defonseca, a nonfiction book about why the hell she feels the need to invent a tragic, genocidal past for herself would be more interesting to me than a Holocaust memoir that isn't real. The idea of projecting oneself backward into a tragic past so fully that one believes it really existed strikes me as not just pathological, but tragic in and of itself. As a writer friend of mine said at lunch the other day, "If I were going to invent a past for myself, I wouldn't pick one filled with tragedy and abuse. I'd choose to be a rock star." Touche. But that would be too easy to fact check, I suppose.

And what's up with the older sister ratting on Margaret Seltzer after seeing the NYT profile of her? There's got to be some kind of family-drama story there.


Anonymous said...

a) you forgot to take me to belize with you and b) YES YES YES! that's what totally leapt out at me-- the older sister ratting out the younger one. i SO wanted to know the backstory on that. maybe it would make a good memoir.

meispirit said...

Since you're on your way to Belize, I'm hoping the flu has flown the coop! Oh isn't it just horrible being sick and having to take care of a sick kid too? I winced reading your earlier post. You're SuperMom! Have a fruitful trip :)