by Jerry Waxler
The novel, The Opposite of Everything is a powerful, fictional account about a character whose marriage is falling apart at the same time as he is fighting with a death sentence from cancer. In fact, this was the same circumstance as the author David Kalish.
Taking a cue from the title, I careened back and forth between the opposites of fiction and memoir, asking myself which parts were true, and how does fiction add to the power of the true life tale. The question of fact versus fiction haunts many memoir authors. How much should I hide? How can I protect myself from lawsuits and hate mail? What if I misremember? How can I embellish to make it more interesting?
I love these questions on the boundary of truth and continue to hope for answers. For example, last year, I went for a walk with Robert Waxler in preparation for point and counterpoint talks we intended to give some day about memoir versus literature. Since he is an English professor at UMass and has written two memoirs as well as a number of books touting the power of literature, he is intimately familiar with both sides of the debate. I told him that I believe memoirs are so important because they emerge from the truth. He insisted on the exact opposite. He believes that fiction is so much more powerful because it’s invented. These opposing views seem unsolvable.
The exciting thing about memoir writing, for me, has been the willingness to face these fears and keep going, staring into the unanswerable questions of truth and story. Now, having read the Opposite of Everything, I have come face to face with a man who has been staring at this paradox since he started writing about his life ten years ago.
Because he is apparently an expert in opposites, I interviewed him about these two forms of narrative and asked him how and why he stepped through that mysterious stargate into the limitless realm of imagination.
Your initial experience as a memoir writer
Jerry Waxler: When you first attempted to write this story, you were attempting to do it in a memoir. During that initial period, like any memoir writer, you were sticking to the facts and trying to turn them into a narrative, a compelling storyline. That makes you an unpublished memoir author. What did you learn from that experience?
David Kalish: I first wrote my book as a memoir because my life was pretty dramatic, and seemed to lend itself to a straight-forward telling. In just four months in 1994, I was diagnosed with incurable thyroid cancer at the same time my first marriage fell apart. I later got remarried to a doctor, and underwent chemotherapy around the same time my daughter was born. I turned to writing as a way to let off steam and tell what I thought was a pretty compelling story. I jotted down scenes, strung together a narrative. Going through this exercise helped me view the events in my life dramatically, and I gave certain scenes more emphasis than others, viewing them in a way that made sense from the standpoint of telling a story.
But after numerous rewrites over several years, I wasn’t happy with the result. The writing felt stiff. I didn’t know how to express how I felt about my pain. My characters were stick figures. Deep down, I felt uncomfortable starring in a book that featured me.
I decided to create some narrative distance. I tried humor. I made my characters do things their real-life counterparts wouldn’t consider. I told the story in third-person. I replaced real names with offbeat ones. I stretched truths for dramatic effect.
What did it feel like to break loose from truth?
Jerry Waxler: To craft a memoir, writers limit themselves to what they can remember. But to turn your manuscript into fiction, you allow yourself to draw from the entire universe of possibilities. That’s a big step that seems to me like leaving the safety of the known and entering the unknown.
How did that feel? Were you scared of the unlimited possibilities? Exhilarated? Was there a moment you decided to make the break?
David Kalish: As a reporter for twelve years at The Associated Press, accuracy was paramount. But I’ve always written fiction on the side, and loved the freedom of it. So when I decided to extend that feeling to my book, I felt extra-liberated. The end result is still a story about one man’s struggle, his search for renewal. But I’ve handed the story over to actors who are free to do all sorts of crazy things. I focused more fully on narrative arc. I went to town on my life.
It was only after I took a fictional perspective – other than my own — did my compassion for characters emerge on the page. As an experiment in the novel’s opening scenes, for instance, I switched the POV from the main character to my first wife. This enabled me to imagine what she was going through during the collapse of my marriage. In doing so, I learned she wasn’t all bad — it was our relationship that was bad. In the end I switched the POV back to the protagonist’s. But my sense of compassion lingered, helping me to write a fuller account.
I felt uncertain about fictionalizing my memoir, of course. It was hard for me to decide where to push drama and comedy, and where to let the facts speak for themselves. That’s where I received lots of help from fellow writers, particularly from Bennington College’s Writing Seminars Program, where I earned my MFA. We formed a writing group after graduating where we shared insights into each other’s work. This helped tremendously when I repeatedly revised my novel to pare it to its essential story.
Sets you free to explore stylistic invention
Jerry Waxler: Most memoirs tend to be more journalistic, explaining what really happened without flights of wordplay and phrasing. In comparison, your book takes all sorts of stylistic liberties: fantastical metaphorical devices (like your character’s notion of the two opposing lumps, his cancer and his wife’s baby) and being able to write chapters from other character’s points of view.
Stylistically you seem to aspire to get into my head in a playful way and sizzle and pop, using words to excite and inspire. Thanks for that sensation!! Fiction seems to have set you free from the journalistic style typical for most memoirs. Tell me how you felt your style evolving when you left memoir behind and entered the mindset of a novel writer. Did your voice change? How so?
David Kalish: When I was writing it as a memoir, the narrative voice was distant from the emotional core of the story. Once I started making stuff up, I had fun with my characters. I had them banter, tell jokes. I riffed on dialogue. The comedy revealed the coping mechanism of the characters, as well as myself. The narrator in turn reconnected to the underlying emotion.
My tone became lighter, even as my material remained dark. I grew less focused on creating beautiful sentences and more focused on conveying ideas, character and story. My writing, as a result, became punchier. The visuals less complicated. The words were a conduit for what I wanted to convey: the emotional journey of the characters.
In the next part of our interview I ask David Kalish more about his decision and thoughts on the relationship between these forms of literature.
Click here for Part 2
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