One theory about novelists is that all fiction is autobiographical to some degree. I’d like to believe that isn’t the case when I read Stephen King or Charlaine Harris. If any part of their novels is coming from their lives, then they’re living at an intensity level that might not be particularly healthy. Still, I think there’s something to be said about this for most writers. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to keep yourself completely outside of your work (in an early draft of my first novel, When You Went Away, a reader asked me why the protagonist hated one of the secondary characters so much; I’d based that character on someone I knew and I suddenly had to rethink my relationship with that person). For another, each of us views the world through our particular prisms. For novelists, those perspectives color every word they write, whether they are conscious of it or not. Therefore, all fiction must be autobiographical to some degree, even if it only reveals a glimpse into the writer’s mind.
Of course, often the autobiographical component is more overt than that. Writers will commonly use events from their lives in their stories, though they might alter the circumstances dramatically. This is a perfectly legitimate fiction-writing device. Interestingly, memoirists seem to be employing it with greater frequency as well, which isn’t nearly as legitimate and it makes Oprah very upset, but that’s a story for another day. My newest novel, Crossing the Bridge, is a love story about a man who has spent the past ten years contending with the sudden death of the brother he adored and with the fact that he was secretly in love with his brother’s girlfriend. I did not have a brother who died when his car went off a bridge, but I did have one who died. In my case, this happened several years before I was born. He’d gotten sick when he was young and passed away in his early teens. His death had an enormous impact on my family, particularly my mother, and when she became pregnant with me after she believed she’d already gone through menopause, she became convinced that her lost son was being returned to her. She never even considered a girl’s name for the baby she was carrying, even though there was no way to confirm that her new child would be a boy in those pre-sonogram days.
Some day, I will write about what it was like to grow up in a family with much older siblings and a mother who believed you were some kind of celestial reparation. In Crossing the Bridge, I deal with a piece of this: the mythology that builds around a fallen member of a household. My late brother was something of an icon in my childhood home. There were pictures of him everywhere. One particularly chilling juxtaposition of images was a large photo of him in a frame into a corner of which my mother had tucked one of my school pictures. We look very much alike in these pictures. Yes, I thought about that quite a bit growing up. Still do, if we’re being honest. For Crossing the Bridge, this mythology affects Hugh, the protagonist, his parents, other members of the community, and, most significantly to Hugh, Iris, his brother’s girlfriend. When, ten years later, Hugh and Iris meet again, they finally address this mythology, something I can’t say I’ve ever done with my own family (note to self…), and contend with the attraction they shared a decade ago.
By the way, I invented Iris. She’s entirely fictional. Well, not entirely. After all, all fiction is autobiographical.
Michael Baron is the pseudonym for a successful nonfiction writer. He is the author of two novels, When You Went Away and Crossing the Bridge. His next novel, The Journey Home, will go on sale in May.