by Jerry Waxler
In the previous post, I interviewed David Kalish, author of the novel, The Opposite of Everything, about his ten-year journey to write his memoir, resulting in a fictionalized version. Why did he change genres? How did he choose his fictional storyline and characters from among the facts?
These important issues arise for many writers, whether novelists or memoirists who wonder how to create an engaging narrative from their observation of the human condition. In this second part of the interview, we dig deeper into David Kalish’s choice, trying to understand the relationship between his life experience and his powerful characters.
The Luxury of Deniability
Jerry Waxler: I’ve been working on my memoir for ten years, and feel good about the story but not so good about the privacy that telling the story violates. I’m jealous of your ability to say in your acknowledgements “No one in this book is real.” What an awesome freedom that gives you. How did the freedom of deniability influence the decision to move toward fiction?
David Kalish: Interestingly, it wasn’t until after I completed my novel that the connection between fiction and deniability became clear. Until that point, the consuming process of writing the book, making sure it held together, and getting it published overwhelmed any concern over whether I’d offend anyone.
But several months before my book was released, a family member had a negative reaction to a synopsis of it on my website. The synopsis said that this family member’s fictional counterpart in the book was “overbearing” and pushed the main character off a bridge. My family member told me he feared the novel would make him look bad. He made the comment without reading the book. “How do I explain to my friends what’s real and what’s not?” Then and there I realized I needed to more proactively emphasize that the novel, despite its resemblance to my real life, is fiction. I crafted an acknowledgment to address his concerns, and struck the adjective “semiautobiographical” from all marketing materials. As I now say in the acknowledgment, any resemblance to real-life people is coincidental to my goals as a novelist to create a fully realized story with a narrative arc.
So the lesson here is, simply calling something “fiction” may not be enough to deny any violation of privacy. I suggest backing it up with a carefully worded acknowledgment and perhaps a dedication too. Even that may not be enough, however. The family member and I still are not on regular speaking terms, and he still hasn’t read the book.
Downer POV character
Jerry Waxler: Your character does some pretty excruciatingly rude things. He pushes people away. His relationship to his father is filled with neurotic blame and loathing. This guy was making such horrible decisions about his relationships, there were moments I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany him on this journey.
As a memoir junkie, I am accustomed to thinking of the protagonist as a real person. So at first I thought, “This guy is incredibly rude.” Then I vacillated thinking “Wow. This guy is being incredibly honest about his own lousy behavior.” Then I thought “Wow. If I had cancer, maybe I would be a real jerk, too.”
But I had to reel my mind back from all of those assessments. It’s fiction, and you were free to create this character any way you wanted. Why did you choose to make him a jerk? Was it because you were a jerk? Were you drawn toward confessing your own bad behavior in real life? Did you exaggerate it for effect, dancing on the edge of intriguing readers and angering them?
David Kalish: I disagree that my protagonist is universally unlikeable. Yes, there are readers who may be turned off by his anti-social tendencies at the outset of his journey, but most people I’ve spoke with find him and his world entertaining enough to go along for the ride. They enjoy his humor, his hapless behavior, his intellectual zaniness. They connect with the darkness he’s going through. People give him a long leash as he discovers his place in the world.
But given that some people think Daniel Plotnick is a jerk, I’ll address that. To create Plotnick, I started with myself. I was a bit of a jerk, admittedly, in my younger days. In real life, I DID lock my wife out of our apartment, based on my lawyer’s advice. Indeed, for the novel, I softened my “jerkiness.” I planted reminders he’s morally conflicted about locking her out, and in fact doesn’t change the locks on her – he changes the locks on himself.
The dramatic requirements of the novel influenced my depiction. On the outset of his emotional journey, Plotnick is in conflict with his wife, his father, and the world. He just wants to be left alone. As the book progresses, he reconciles with people and puts his life back together. In his bizarre way, he finds love and renewal in the world.
I didn’t have a model in mind for an edgy character, although I took cues from the bizarrely dark behavior of the protagonist and lesser characters in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
Wife is smarter than main character. Could you invent such powerful behavior?
Jerry Waxler: Your edgy main character meets a women with astonishing sexuality and cleverness who has a relentless way of bypassing his defenses, ignoring his cynicism and mean-spirited behavior in order to help him heal. His self-involvement and her ability to cut through it provides a fascinating mix. I love these two people!
In a way, his wife was the hero of the story, and the main character was being rescued. (It would be like a version of Hamlet in which Ophelia figured out how to help Hamlet heal from his fatal flaw.)This premise is so complex and intricate, it’s hard for me to imagine you made this up. I’m wondering if life experience handed you this surprising flawed hero and his surprisingly strong wife.
Even if it wasn’t entirely a memoir, it seems to me that at least some of its power was shaped by your own experience. This raises the maddening question any writer might ask him or herself. How would one evolve from the power of real life into (hopefully) the even greater power of fiction? In other words, for all of us aspiring writers, even if we don’t intend to write memoir, how much of our lives should we be expecting to move to the page? I know you can’t answer for the mob of writers lining up at the starting gate ready to start the marathon of memoir writing. But after having run the marathon of writing an unpublished memoir, and then tacking a second marathon of turning it into a novel, could you share some pearls of wisdom about how the power of real life has informed your writing?
David Kalish: The second wife in my novel is totally modeled after my actual second wife. Like Sonia in the book, she is a strong-minded, purposeful Colombian doctor who has a unique way of looking at the world and expressing it. The fact she’s from a foreign culture allowed me, as a writer, to view her with fresh eyes and, to an extent, capture her mannerisms, dialogue, and quirks on the page. Of course, I exaggerated everything for effect. But what I didn’t exaggerate was how much she helped me when I was going through my disease. She never beat around the bush. She told me in no uncertain terms how to cope. Her interesting way of nurturing me was what I needed to find strength to face up to my mortality. I’m a lucky guy that way. Of all the characters in the book, she’s one of the closest to my real-life counterpart.
All writers need to mine their personal lives for material for their writing. But my material is particularly rich, and so I probably went deeper than most. I think we all have characters in our life, but my tendency is to stretch real-life personalities and events to make them more interesting. Writing, to me, is a constant flight from boredom – and a lot more happens in fiction than in real life. Much of real life is spent doing very little of interest to fiction readers.
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