Stranger Than Fiction

a surprising conversation about the differences between writing nonfiction and, as Meredith says, "Making stuff up"

by Meredith Maran

You’ve had a successful career as a journalist and memoirist. What made you decide to try your hand at fiction at age 60?
Maran: A decade ago, a friend I’ll call “Sue” told me her story. In 1985, she’d left a happy relationship with another woman because she wanted to have children, and she couldn’t imagine doing that without a husband. A few months later, when Sue was married to a man and pregnant with her first child, the two women reconciled as friends, and Sue, her husband, and her ex-lover ended up raising the child together. When I heard this story, I thought, “If only I were a novelist, that would make a great plot.”

As I watched the story unfold in real time my friend’s real life, the itch to write it finally overcame my fear of attempting fiction. After a lifetime of writing only nonfiction, that fear was epic—and, as it turned out, well-founded. The novel took two years to write, five years to rewrite, and many gnawed fingernails to sell. And it’s been the most thrilling experience of my writing life. Je ne regrette rien.

What moved you to write this particular novel?
Maran: I started Earthquakes in 2004, when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California, and not yet allowed anywhere else in the United States. As I watched brides marrying brides and grooms marrying grooms at San Francisco City Hall, many of them with their children between them, I was struck by how things had changed since I first fell in love with a woman in 1983—when confessing my new love put me at risk of losing custody of my kids.

Since high school, I’ve written about the dance between the personal and the political. I was curious to explore how changes in social attitudes affect our innermost feelings and decisions. It seemed the best way was to follow a bisexual woman and her family through a lot of changes, over a long period of time.

What surprised you most about the differences between writing nonfiction and writing fiction?
Maran: Fiction is so much harder! Of course, I also made the project about as difficult for myself as possible. Follow a family over twenty years? Incorporate the headlines of the times into their everyday lives? Write believable, compelling sex scenes between a woman and a woman and the same woman and a man? All great concepts. All incredibly tough for a newbie novelist to pull off. Which is why I’m so grateful to the small army of editor-friends who read and critiqued draft after draft…after draft after draft.

What would you tell aspiring writers with a hot true story to tell? Should they throw caution to the wind and write it as a memoir? Or preserve their relationships with loved ones and turn it into a novel?
Maran: I couldn’t have written this novel until I’d written the memoirs that were burning inside me. Unfortunately, many humans were harmed in the making of those memoirs, which finally convinced me the satisfaction wasn’t worth the price.

To my mind, a memoir has to pass two tests to justify its existence. First and foremost, it has to be of use to someone other than the author. Second, some stories’ power can only be captured in truth. Jaycee Dugard’s memoir of being abducted, for example, wouldn’t have been as strong in fictional form.

But if you can make up a story and a set of characters, or pretend you did, I say, go with fiction. As we speak, I’m wearing a t-shirt one of my fiction victims gave me. It says, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” But at least she was laughing when she gave it to me.

Meredith Maran is a frequent contributor to After 40 years as an award-winning journalist and memoirist, Meredith published her first novel, A Theory Of Small Earthquakes, on Valentine’s Day—at age 60, in the same year that her first grandchild was born.

First Published Tue, 2012-02-14 14:29

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