7/23/15 BASED ON A TRUE STORY. What does it mean—based on a true story? If the book I’m reading is nonfiction, my second brain puzzles over which details have been suppressed, fabricated, devised, or rearranged. If the book is fiction, it is sure to be followed by others’ speculations about the models for characters, locales, plots and careers found among the author’s family and acquaintances.
When Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1996 memoir Angela’s Ashes, his own mother denied the accuracy of his stories about his impoverished childhood in Brooklyn, NY, and Limerick, Ireland. But his brother Malachy said of those days, “Poverty is a disease. And we had that.” My best guess is that Angela’s Ashes is true in the balance.
The Diary of a Young Girl, was written by Anne Frank when she was 13 to 15 years old, hiding from the Nazis with her family and four other families in an office annex in Amsterdam. The first edition was edited, some say censored, by her father, the only survivor of the death camps. It wasn’t until 1997 that an unexpurgated edition was printed. Her cousin, Buddy Elias, then 71, said “people try to make a saint out of her and glorify her. That she was not. She was an ordinary, normal girl with a talent for writing.” The later version is likely the true one.
When it comes to books published as fiction, I think first of Julia Alvarez’s 1991 novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Drawing heavily on the struggles of her Dominican-Republic family to integrate into the U.S. mainstream, Alvarez exposes, usually with sweet humor, the way gender, ethnic, and class differences affect that integration. Her truth is told through fictional stories and symbols. For months after Garcia Girls was published, her mother refused to speak with her and her sisters complained, each in her own way.
Tender is the Night is another work of fiction. Like much of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work it mirrors events and personalities in his own life: his marriage, his wife Zelda’s mental instability, his descent into alcoholism, his affairs and hers, his feelings that he’d wasted his talent. Earlier he’d published The Great Gatsby which evokes his younger self: falling into decadence while trying to prove himself to the girl he loves; idolizing the very rich; and, above all, losing himself in his mad love for Zelda. A good bit of this seems to be true, but the truth is wrapped in the cloak of fiction.
Now here’s a true story about a book based on a true story. I heard it at a writers conference in New York City. Never mind the elbowing and shoving that assured the most aggressive of a few coveted moments face-to-face with an agent or publisher. What concerns us here is a published author whose memoir tells the true story of her romance and marriage with a man in prison, and their troubled life after his release.
The book was marketed as a riveting account of loneliness, lust, good intentions, deceit, love and violence. It’s not the story Nancy J had shopped to a publisher at a writing conference much like the one we were at that day in New York City.
The thing is, Nancy J got her two minutes with a publisher and the publisher wanted her manuscript! The rush of meetings and expensive dinners, the handsome offer, and the attention were beyond anything she ever expected. She hardly noticed the phrase “developmental editor” in the contract which was explained as someone who would organize and polish the manuscript—small changes really.
Nancy J’s main responsibility was to answer questions at the planning meetings. It was a surprise and embarrassment when the early questions focused not on the exchange of letters that led to her first meeting with the prisoner. Instead, the questions focused on the first conjugal visit, the emotions, the lust, the visitation room, his smell, the aggressiveness of his approach, the parting afterwards. The leering of the guards, the shame. When she read the edited version of the early chapters, she argued with the publisher. She worried that no one would recognize the sweet—well mostly sweet—man she loved and married, or herself for that matter. What would people say? What would her husband say?
Think of it as putting on a little makeup to go out on the town, the editor told her. You want to show off your assets to their best advantage. That’s how you win your audience, and your audience is going to love you and be in awe of your courage.
A struggle for control of the story ensued. The publishers said she’d signed her story over to the them, but not to worry. She could talk to a lawyer, they told her. The lawyer, who was also the publisher’s lawyer, told her she had no recourse, and charged her a month’s rent for the half-hour consultation.
Pay attention, dear reader, this story I’m telling is based on a true story.
Nancy J ’s husband said a few stretched facts didn’t bother him. It was the money that was important—and it poured in those first few months after publication, everything she’d been promised. But she was unprepared for the questions and the criticism that came with the book tour.
She was confused and angry and once driven to tears by a woman who asked if she wasn’t she just using the man to make a name for herself. Her husband blamed her for letting him down, not defending him when people called him a common criminal, a blight on society and worse. He showed up at the book talks, and cut into her answers with his own. The audience turned on him and he was arrested for hitting a man who called him a thug.
The publisher made money, but her author royalties were cut in half when Nancy J refused to go on another book tour. The controversy increased book sales. The former prisoner sued his wife for defamation of character. She sued him for divorce.
The publisher discovered a new star author, and the cost of unsold books was deducted from Nancy J’s future royalties. Her next book, self-published, was based on the true story of her experience with the publishing industry. She was popular at book conferences like the one in New York City for a while, but sales lagged. What I’m telling you is not fiction so I don’t know what happened to her after that. Unlike the Fitzgerald works, this story isn’t about me. Unlike the Fitzgerald works, the truth is not wrapped in fiction—it’s drowning in it. Your second brain might ask which parts are which, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
That’s the nature of stories based on true stories.