Monday, April 5, 2010

Why I Wrote a Novel, Not a Memoir

This is the first of three guest posts that I have agreed to write this week for the blog of Kepler's bookstore, in Menlo Park:

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“Wait,” the woman cut me off, after I mentioned that my husband’s family had connections to the bookstore where she worked.  “Your husband?  When did that happen?” She looked bewildered and (was I imagining it?) irked.

“Five years ago?”  I said, my voice rising in a question the way it does when I get nervous.

“So when did you write the book?"

“Um...  I started it in 2000 and I guess I finished it about two years ago?”

Upon hearing this, her scowl deepened (no, I wasn’t imagining it), which was disconcerting since until the conversation took this detour, I had been enjoying speaking with her.  She had told me that she’d begun reading my book earlier that week, and that she planned on recommending it to customers at the bookstore.  I was thrilled.  This was the week that the book came out, and I was still getting used to the fact that strangers—people aside from my mother—might actually choose to read my novel.

“You do realize that it’s a novel,” I said on a whim, figuring that of course she must.  After all, the words A Novel were printed on the spine.

“What?” she practically sputtered.  

“It’s a novel?” I sounded as if I doubted this fact myself.

“I had no idea,” she said, shaking her head.  "I'm really sorry."

“That's okay,” I rushed to try and put her at ease.  “There’s a lot that comes from real life.”

Let me stop and tell you a little bit about the book, which will help explain her confusion.   

My novel (and it is a novel—I swear), If You Follow Me, is about a young woman who moves from Manhattan to a small town in rural Japan.  She is in her first relationship with another woman, and is following her girlfriend, who wanted to teach abroad, on a Japanese government program.  When they learn that they’ve been placed in a remote and conservative region—in the nuclear power plant town of Shika—they decide to keep their relationship a secret for a while, so as not to scare people.  Unfortunately, this creates pressure that contributes to the erosion of their relationship.  Even though they’re not “out,” they both find plenty of other ways to alienate themselves from the senior citizens who preside over their neighborhood—mostly to do with their inability to follow the Kafka-esque garbage laws about how to dispose of things.

The novel follows the narrator, Marina, over the course of a year, as she struggles to adapt to this new culture and job, and to come to terms with her father’s death.  He killed himself during her senior year of college, ending his life right when hers was about to begin.  While she tries to set her grief aside and move on as if nothing had happened, her sadness and confusion and guilt follow her to Japan—they’re as hard to “throw away” as the trash.  The novel is also, as the back of the jacket says, “a strange kind of love story,” as she starts to fall for her Japanese supervisor, a karaoke aficionado who writes her letters that are initially intended to teach her how to obey garbage laws, but grow increasingly personal.

So why might that woman have mistaken my novel for a memoir?   

For starters, the main character’s name is awfully close to my own.  “Marina” is what I was called when I lived in Japan, because “Malena” was nearly impossible for most native Japanese speakers to pronounce.  The Japanese characters Ma-Ri-Na were etched on my hanko, the bamboo stamp that was registered at Shika’s town hall, that I used to “sign” bank statements and bills.  Like my fictional namesake, I lived for a year in the nuclear power plant town of Shika, where music did in fact pump from speakers aimed at every house, “to test the PA system in case of some emergency evacuation,” according to my supervisor.  I taught at a vocational school not unlike the one in the novel, where the classes were split by gender.  I also followed someone to Japan, where the relationship unraveled for different reasons, not so dissimilar from what happens in the book.

But I took plenty of liberties with the story as well.  In Shika, I lived not with my girlfriend in a rickety old house, but by myself in a postage-stamp-sized apartment that was largely made of plastic.  The house featured in the novel was actually in Kanazawa, the small city where I lived during my second year in Japan, with two other women—one of them a semi-professional fencer from Canada.  We did bury a cat, but he died of natural causes, not at the hands of a furious shut-in, as happens in the novel.  No such shut-in lived across the street.  However, there was an obese boy who happened to be the only male student in my all-girls class back in Shika, who had allegedly been living in his room throughout junior high, and who was bullied by other kids.  I taught him for a year, but never got to know him.  My lingering fascination provoked me to want to write about him, to imagine what had motivated himself to hide from the world and why he’d come out again--but so tentatively.

Sometimes I feel like I should have a checklist, where the parts of the book that are true are listed on one side, and the parts that aren’t are true appear on the other, that I could bring as a visual aid to readings.  It might simplify things for readers, and satisfy their curiosity, which I get.  Whenever I read a book that is semi-autobiographical, I always wonder which bits came from real life and which were invented.  I don’t have a particular preference for autobiographical fiction, but I do like to read something where the emotions of the characters (especially the narrator, in a first person novel) feel fresh and spot-on, where the writer is using fiction to explore complex and nuanced feelings, often about difficult things.  A reporter asked me recently if I could say what percentage of the book is true and what percentage is made up.  I said that the emotional core of the book is largely true, or as true as I could make it.  While writing, I was trying to sift out and find language to dramatize feelings that are still murky for me.  But the story is largely made up.  A lot of the characters are inspired by people I knew, or who captured my imagination when I lived in Japan.  But they didn’t do the things or say the things that happen in the novel.  

“So why did you write this as a novel and not as a memoir?” a woman asked at a reading--a question I'm getting used to, although I still can't give a quick answer (as you can see).

“Because I like to lie,” was the first response that came to me, tongue-in-cheek but also at least partly true.  I’m the kind of person who, when telling an anecdote from real life, can’t help but embellish the details a little (or a lot) if it makes a better story.  This is why I love fiction, why I mostly read stories and novels instead of memoirs, and why I want to write it as well.  During the James Frey scandal, I was struck by the fact that he’d written his book first as a novel, which he failed to sell, only succeeding in finding a publisher after he turned it into a memoir.  When Oprah attacked him, one of the issues she had was the seeming randomness of some of his lies, which seemed needless and exasperating.  The reason for this, I’m sure, is that he’d grown attached to the fictionalized version of events, the one he struggled to find while crafting the dreary or disconnected bits of his life into a novel with a coherent story line, a book with a structure and a plot and themes, an arc and some kind of resolution--things we ask for in a work of fiction and seldom get in real life.

In this book, I wanted to have it both ways.  I wanted to be able to write in almost documentary detail about this incredibly surreal place where I lived in Japan, and also to capture the feelings, ranging from claustrophobia to wonder, that I had while living there.  I started the story that turned into the novel while I was in graduate school at Iowa.  For a year I'd been inventing characters, jumping from one perspective to another, never quite satisfied that I’d nailed these fictional people or captured their voices.  Before that, I’d worked in journalism.  Writing essays and articles, I found it easier to capture a natural or authentic sounding voice, partly because I could imagine the reader.  I knew who I was speaking to.  When I started writing about Japan, I wanted to tap into that voice, the one that I use when I write nonfiction, but I wanted to use it to tell a story.   That was my chief goal: to give readers the satisfaction of a story, rather than just stringing together a series of vignettes from my two years abroad, where I would have been unable to resist the temptation to exaggerate—and gotten in big trouble after getting caught, I have no doubt.

Now, when I get caught, I can always point to those words, A Novel, written on the spine of the book.  It's true, sort of, just like the book itself.

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