Come on down the rabbit hole with me

When I started writing my new novel, NO ONE YOU KNOW, I knew that I wanted to write a book about storytelling, about the blurred line between fact and fiction, about how literary ambition and the desire to tell the perfect story can cause a lot of grief. I knew what sort of trouble I wanted to get my characters into, but I had no clue how to get them out of it.

Enter real life. About a year and a half ago, my husband Kevin and I met legendary rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres and his wife Dianne at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Laureates dinner. The four of us immediately hit it off, and because Ben and Dianne happened to be into the same Bravo shows we’re into, we spent a few evenings in one another’s homes, watching Project Runway and Top Chef, while I secretly fondled Ben’s Emmys.

About this time I was stuck, uncertain how to solve a pretty major problem I’d created in the book: the narrator, Ellie, is trying to figure out who might have been involved in her sister’s death two decades before. Soon there was a former rock-and-roller in the mix–Billy Boudreaux–who’d been fast and furious on his way to music stardom in the seventies but who hadn’t been heard from in decades. I couldn’t figure out how Ellie would find him, until I thought of Rolling Stone, and Ben Fong-Torres, who’d been an editor there at exactly the time that my rocker was hitting it big. One thing led to another, and pretty soon Ellie was going to visit Ben at his house. This was supposed to be a single scene, a diversion within the fabric of the story. But so much of writing is accidental, so much of it hinges on that moment when you’re typing away and think, well wouldn’t it be neat if…

Wouldn’t it be neat, I thought, if Ben took on a bigger role. A pretty significant role, actually. Once I’d got him wound up all good and tight in the plot, I asked if it would be okay to use his real name in the book, and very kindly he consented. He even let me put his house in there, as long as I promised not to be too specific about its location.

At the very end of No One You Know, I figured out what I’d been trying to say all along. Having become lost in the middle of the night on an unfamiliar San Francisco street, Ellie remarks, “Sometimes it felt as if books and life formed a strange origami, the intricate folds and secret shadows so intricately connected, it was impossible to tell one from the other.” Upon looking up into an open window, she encounters an image of a woman turning off a lamp, a moment that seems too much like a scene she has lived before. As I wrote the scene, I found myself staring into the window with Ellie, realizing, much to my dismay, that I too recognized the woman in the window–she is a character from a much earlier book, one I wrote while living in a very eerie old house in Knoxville, Tennessee.

With each subsequent book I write, I have the sensation of falling a bit farther into the rabbit hole. What is fiction, and what is fact? What have I lived, and what only seems familiar to me because I have written it into a novel? The thing is, now I’m starting to take other people with me. Just a warning, should you be in my general vicinity while the next novel is in progress.

Join me at the Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco, Tuesday, July 15, 7:30 p.m., or The Depot in Mill Valley, CA, Wed, July 16, 7:00 p.m.


  1. says

    Not having written much fiction myself, I’ve often wondered about the experience that writers have creating characters and worlds. In this post, you’ve managed to answer some questions I hadn’t even been able to fully formulate about this. I remember some comments Jack Vance made in an introduction somewhere about how he could see some of his characters in his mind’s eye and how they had a life of their own and even how he missed them. It is almost as if the characters take on a life of their own and begin to move off into their own space. It must be an interesting and strange feeling.

  2. says

    Hi there, Will. Thanks for your comment. And the feeling of inhabiting your characters’ lives…interesting and strange, indeed! While I always feels that I have complete control of what my characters do, I do find that I lose myself a bit when I’m deep in the writing of a novel, as it’s easy to become extraordinarily focused on the world within the book.

  3. says

    Two things spring to mind reading this (which I enjoyed enormously by the way). The first is the research by Keith Oatley I recently read about in New Scientist (and blogged about here: which seems to show that when we read fiction we take on the personalities of the protagonists. It actually changes us. The other is the notion of ‘false memories’. These are easily implanted in people’s minds – there are now standard techniques which psychologists use to put false memories in people when they run experiments. I write fiction too and the intense involvement one experiences with the world one is creating is almost certainly going to leave deep traces. I suspect I’m not alone in imagining the scenes and the people I write about so vividly that the distinction between them and reality is often moot. Oatley describes reading fiction as running a simulation of the fictional world in your mind. Unless the writer is brilliant, I suspect that creating these virtual worlds is a much more detailed experience.

  4. says

    Thanks for the comment, Graham, and for the link to your post and the New Scientist article. In your post you say “But I like the idea that when I write fiction I am also writing a simulation of a world that will run in people’s minds.” I agree! It’s strange to think that when someone reads our fiction, in particular long fiction that they settle into for an hour or more at a time, in a sense we get to control the reader’s thoughts. Of course any type of writing is a dialogue–between the words on the page and the reader’s unspoken words of response–but during the time the reader is immersed in the fiction, the writer is to a large degree controlling the conversation.

    Interesting what you say about false memories, too. My previous novel, The Year of Fog, is in large part about memory, and includes several case studies of patients whose memory is exceptional in some way. There is a scene in which she realizes that a memory she has held dear for most of her adult life is actually a “false memory” created by her mother.