How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

By Jerry Waxler

In this part of my interview with novelist Judi Hendricks, I ask her to describe how she walks the line between fact and fiction in her novel “Bread Alone.”

Jerry Waxler: When I read “Bread Alone” I was impressed by how realistic and rich the dialog was. It was just very real. I enjoy dialog that has a rich real flavor, and always wonder how writers do it. How do you bring your dialog to life?

Judi Hendricks: You have no idea how big of a compliment that is. When I first began to write fiction, dialog was the hardest thing for me.  There are so many ways to do it badly, and I did every one of them.  I’ve always been an incorrigible eavesdropper, so at first I tried to write the way people actually talk, which is incredibly boring, full of um and you know and sentence fragments that go nowhere.  I read a lot of novels and books on writing, and I took a lot of classes, and I learned that the biggest problem with my dialog was that it went on far too long.

When you’re writing dialog you have to decide with each conversation between your characters, what exactly is the point of this exchange?  Once you know that, you must ruthlessly cut everything that doesn’t pertain to that point.  And if you don’t know what the point of an exchange is, you have to get rid of the whole conversation, no matter how cool it sounds.  The other thing about dialog is to be constantly aware, and to make the reader aware, that what a character says is not necessarily what she thinks or feels.  Everyone’s got an agenda; every conversation has subtext.  To me, that’s one of the biggest things that brings dialog to life.  This applies to memoir as well as to fiction.

Jerry: I have heard that people often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” I could see how this line of questioning could lead to a tangle if you have to start explaining which parts are true and which are invented. Maybe that’s why many writers try to dodge the question altogether. How does that work for you?

Judi: “Where do you get your ideas?” is the second most frequently asked question, right after “How did you get your agent?” and I’m always tempted to laugh.  It’s almost like there should be a catalog company with a warehouse in Kansas where you can order ideas over the internet.  My best response is that ideas are organic.  Your life is like a big compost pile full of thoughts, dreams, memories, experiences…all of which lie there and rot and become this very fertile substance from which ideas sprout spontaneously.  As for the truth, that’s a more slippery thing.  I don’t believe that a story has to be real to be true.

Jerry: Do you keep a writing notebook to jot down notes you observe or think? Do you insert snips of overheard conversations into your novels?

Judi: I actually have several notebooks.  One by the bed, one in the car, one in my purse.  As I get older and my memory gets worse, I feel like I have to write down the ideas I don’t want to forget.  A few of my best lines are gems I overheard in an elevator or sitting in a café.  Those are like a gift from the writing gods.

Jerry: Many new writers ask, “What if a character sues or hates me for writing the story?” Obviously you side stepped this issue by writing fiction. It’s what the spies call “plausible deniability.” You could say, “Oh, no. It’s fiction. That wasn’t really you.” But this is a complex mental and emotional game. You must juggle parts of reality with parts of imagination. Did it feel strange distorting real events for the purposes of the story?

Judi: It really is a kind of game…a game of “what if,” like my writing about the robbery. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble distorting or changing or embellishing reality.  When I was growing up I got in trouble for it; now I get paid for it.  Sometimes when I try to write nonfiction it’s harder to remember what actually happened than to recall the little nuances and embroideries I concoct around so many events.

Jerry: Interesting. Experts, like Brian Boyd in “The Evolution of Stories” propose that humans began to tell stories as a sort of cognitive playground where they experiment with alternate scenarios. You seem to be the perfect model for that theory. In “Bread Alone” you turned your imagination loose at the boundaries of reality. So on your fifth novel, how has that connection between life and fiction evolved for you over the years?

Judi: Bread Alone was my first novel, and my most personal one, partly because I actually experienced some of the things I wrote about.  But no matter what I’m writing about, it becomes very real to me. Part of writing fiction is digging deeper and deeper, not just into your characters, but into yourself, mining your own emotions and memories.  You discover your character’s emotional reality by drawing upon your own.  For example, in Isabel’s Daughter, my second novel, the protagonist is a woman who was abandoned as a child, grew up in an orphanage and foster homes.  I’ve never been abandoned; my family was excruciatingly normal, so I don’t know anything about that.  But my experience includes that feeling of not being fully engaged in life, of being an outsider–and it was that feeling I had to mine when I wrote this character.

Everything you write is filtered through your experience, your sensibilities.  Even if it’s a totally fictional story with characters that are completely unlike you, it’s still almost impossible to separate the writer from the work.  That’s why it’s so hard not to read criticism of your work as criticism of yourself.

If I only knew what my thought process was as I tried to figure out the story structure…  It’s the same for me now, working on my fifth novel, as it was with Bread Alone.  I just keep writing to discover what happens.  There’s a certain amount of ceding control to the story, which I know sounds very woo-woo, but there you are.

Notes

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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