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March 19, 2012

When Nonfiction is Fiction

As I’m researching Velva Jean’s Hollywood story, I am reading through book after book written by or about movie stars and movie moguls from the 1940s. I’m reading about the studio system, the star machine, the inner workings of the movie musical, every bit of Hollywood and Los Angeles history, and the studios themselves. In all these many, varied books one thing stands out– very few are well researched, well resourced, and well documented, and the majority of them take great liberties in reporting fact.

The one I’m reading now, for instance, is a book about Clark Gable and all his women (written by a woman who never knew Gable or the women in question). The author quotes pages of dialogue supposedly spoken between Clark Gable and his various wives and mistresses, yet she doesn’t list any notes or sources. Perhaps she was there for every single one of these private, often intimate, conversations, hiding behind a curtain or underneath a bed or lurking in the shadows while Gable and Carole Lombard or Gable and Joan Crawford or Gable and his first wife, Josephine Dillon, were deep in discussion, but somehow I don’t think so. This woman has written other books on Hollywood stars of yesteryear, just as sloppily reported and shoddily researched, but she isn’t the only one. She is just one of– unfortunately– many nonfiction “writers” who bend and fluff and spice up the truth to suit the story. She is just one of many authors who rely on hearsay, rumor, legend, and unreliable secondhand resources– magazines, newspapers, other books– and then fails to document where she got most of her information. I have approximately 133 books on my Hollywood shelf, and I would estimate that only 15 of these have the right to be called nonfiction.

Hollywood-related books are not the only ones guilty of this. There are plenty of other books on plenty of other subjects– from literary biography to World War II to Appalachia to Anne Boleyn– that are filled with conjecture and theory, without actually calling it conjecture and theory, but instead putting it out there as hard fact. Which is especially unfortunate when the subject or subjects being written about are no longer here and able to speak up for themselves.

I look at writing nonfiction as a privilege, one that needs to be respected. As a writer of nonfiction, you are, after all, dealing with real people and real lives and real events. Even in my historical fiction, I try to keep the nonfiction mindset of researching my subject thoroughly and staying as historically accurate as possible, shaping my character to fit history as much as I can, rather than shaping history to fit my character. I write both fiction and nonfiction, and one reason I do so is because fiction is where I can make things up. Nonfiction is where I do my best to retell a story. It is also where I provide pages and pages of endnotes to back up my telling of that story, one of my least favorite aspects of writing. But also a very necessary one.

Because I’m such a meticulous, unrelenting, passionate stickler for fact (my mother, who almost strictly writes nonfiction, is the same), I hate it when writers repeat or pass off as truth unsubstantiated “facts” or “blur” the edges for dramatic effect. I also hate it when people ask me, “So your first two books are nonfiction– how much of what you wrote in there is true?” The answer: all of it.

If I didn’t know something, I left it out. If it didn’t happen, I didn’t pretend it did. After all, truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Why embellish?

Although I certainly formed opinions about the people I was writing about in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack— especially controversial expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson– I worked hard not to color the prose with my opinions. Who cares what I think? That’s what author interviews are for. Besides, I wasn’t on those expeditions. Even if I feel justified in expressing an opinion about Stefansson or his methods or this person or that one, the simple fact is: I wasn’t there. Instead, I let the men and women of the expeditions speak for themselves, through the material found in letters and diaries and other firsthand materials from the time.

(Speaking of speaking for themselves, in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, as well as in my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, the only dialogue that appears is quoted from actual resources. While I would have loved to add additional exciting pages of dialogue to the book, I would have had to call it a novel.)

To me, the saddest thing about that question I’m often asked is this: if a book purports to be nonfiction, why do we, as readers, naturally assume part of it must be untrue? Perhaps because so many– too many– writers take liberty with fact. And the danger there is that by doing so, the real story, the true story of the men and women and children involved, becomes lost.

As a writer, isn’t it my responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen?

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