Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fact and Fiction: Life into Story

Whenever I hear the latest update on the ebola outbreak, I think of Don Rearden. I can’t help it. In his novel The Raven’s Gift, he wrote about the devastation brought on by a deadly disease that spins out of control. Sure, his book is fiction, and at that time he wrote it, he was thinking bird flu, but the parallels between fact and fiction are a little uncanny.

On a less dramatic scale, I’ve seen a similar tension between fact and fiction play out involving a plot point in my first novel A Distant Enemy. Nearly two decades ago, I wrote a set-up that involved intentional fishing during an emergency closure in Southwest Alaska. In the last few years, a similar scenario had played out in a very real conflict over changes in salmon harvest more drastic than any I’d dared to imagine. Arrests and court battles followed. Decisions were reached, but the battle is far from over.

It would be nice to think that when it comes to such things, we authors are smart and savvy and maybe even a little prophetic (oh lottery numbers, please make yourselves known!). But really, the whole thing boils down to this: in fiction, our material is life as it’s lived and known and hidden and dreamed.

Not that our task is easy. Our own lives infuse our work with power even as “real life” gets in the way. We face hard choices about what constitutes truth. And sometimes what we think we know is only a smattering of what’s required of us to get it right on the page, which means research—lots of it, even for stories.

As author Peggy Shumaker so aptly puts it, "the whole truth is never available to us." And yet somehow in our work, we wrestle with the facts of who we are - the things we can face and the truths we aren't ready for yet. The unknown always feels bigger than the known.

Then there are the practical matters of whose stories we tell and what right we have to give voice to anyone, along with the fine points of perspective and the tension between getting the facts right (whatever form "right" may take) and staying true to the narrative as well as the extent to which we live the facts of our work as opposed to drawing on the experiences of others.

The intersection of fact and fiction makes for great conversation among writers. Tomorrow we’re headed to Soldotna to share that discussion with local readers, writers, and seekers, along with the just plain curious. One and all, you’re invited to “Fact and Fiction: Life into Story,” a reading and book talk hosted by the Kenai Peninsula College Showcase Series in conjunction with 49 Writers.

And wait, there’s more: Don and I couldn’t be happier to announce that Seth Kantner (Ordinary Wolves, Pup and Pokey, Shopping for Porcupine) will be joining us for this lively discussion. We hope you’ll be there too: 7 pm, at KPC’s McLain Commons. Admission is free, with book sales and signing to follow. The next day, Don and I will be teaching workshops on character and point of view. For the workshops, preregistration is required; head on over to the 49 Writers website to get all the scoop.