On The Pleasure of Imagining How It Would Be

As a student at the Bennington Summer Writers Workshop in my junior year of college, I remember hearing Blanche Boyd say, If you’re fiction is good enough, they’ll believe it all really happened to you, and if your nonfiction is good enough, they’ll believe you made it up.

I think about this more than I would have thought in the years since that author Q&A. That, and the thrill of being a college student, waiting in line for the keg with Joy Williams on a summer night in Vermont. Who was dressed in her tennis whites.

This week, I was editing an interview I did with Sigrid Nunez when an author Q&A arrived from Nami Mun’s publicist, and there was a coincidence worth describing.

From my forthcoming interview with Sigrid Nunez, which will appear soon over at Memorious:

  • I think what comes forward is the way the novel [The Last of Her Kind] is a kind of, not quite a correction, but an intervention, a way to really look at what happened, before it’s lost to this mix of retrospective embarrassment and the mythmaking of film and television, the way it all gets reduced to this cliché of a girl putting flowers in her hair and having sex with too many people. This novel strips off the kitsch and the faux naivete in the way people deal with these things. For example, I don’t think the people who say they hate hippies have any idea of what it took to just walk away like that. Or why you would.

    One of the reasons I wanted to write about that time was precisely because I’d always found it so difficult to understand. I remembered a lot, but it all seemed increasingly strange and remote and even inexplicable to me. But I had no desire to write about it as autobiography. I knew I could only get at the truth if I wrote about it from the outside, from the perspective of a character—Georgette George, as it turned out—whose experience of that time was very different from mine. People always assume that what you write about is true—

    That it is just you, writing down ‘what happened’, and then changing the names.

    Yes. People assume a lot of the time you’re just working from memory. But the thing is, I was at Woodstock, but when it came to writing my book I purposely had my characters miss Woodstock. On the other hand, I wasn’t at Altamont, but I have some characters go there and I describe the event in full detail. So that’s the thing. I knew I wanted to include a big rock concert in the story. But instead of writing, from memory, about the one I’d actually experienced, I chose instead to write about one for which I had to do a lot of research and make things up.

    Can you say some more about that, push into that idea for a moment? Because I really agree with that.

    I think it has everything to do with the desire to be engaged in inventing a story, rather than reporting a story—in other words, with what makes me want to write fiction in the first place. It just would not have been as interesting to me, as a writer, to write about my Woodstock experience (as part of a novel, I mean; I have written about it, as nonfiction, elsewhere). It wouldn’t have been as interesting and it wouldn’t have been as much fun, and then there’s also the desire to take a risk, the risk of writing about what you don’t know. I think it’s similar to the impulse that makes people want to write historical novels. But of course it doesn’t have to be a story set in Paris in another century. It’s still the same impulse, there’s something that pulls you away from yourself and your own experiences. That delicious pull toward the unknown and the need to give full play to the imagination.

From Nami Mun’s Q&A for her forthcoming debut, Miles From Anywhere (which I loved and blurbed) and which is getting early rave reviews:

  • Your novel has many autobiographical elements.  Like Joon, your main character, you’re a Korean-American from New York City who was a teenage runaway, a dance hostess, and an Avon Lady who sold cosmetics door to door. Joon is also at times a drug addict, a sex worker, and a petty criminal.  How closely is Joon’s story based on your own?

    Not very. If I had to put it in numbers, I’d say maybe one percent of the book is autobiographical. Yes, I left home at a young age but I chose not to write about the actual events of my own life as a runaway. I kept those actual events in a “reserve” of sorts and used my knowledge of them to strengthen the narrative artifice I was creating.

    Take the chapter “Avon” for example, in which Joon sells cosmetics door-to-door. I once had a job selling jewelry out of a briefcase door to door. I think I was maybe fourteen or fifteen then. I would walk down streets and enter businesses and do my best to get someone, anyone, to buy a gold necklace or what have you from me. One place I went into was a Chinese restaurant. It was completely empty of customers, so I walked to the back, into the kitchen, and mimed and gestured my sales pitch to a staff of Chinese men who spoke little English. I held a necklace out for them to see. One of them took it from my hand, looked at it closely, and without much warning, tossed it into a sizzling wok. I was stunned. The man said to me, “Fake? Turn green,” again and again, while stir-frying the necklace with these very long chopsticks. They all stood around the stove and watched the oil bubble, and I think I prayed to every god I knew back then, begging for that necklace to stay gold. After about a minute or so, the man plucked the necklace out, studied it again, and said words to his co-workers, who nodded in agreement. Luckily, for me, it didn’t turn green.

    I’m pretty sure it was my one and only sale, but when that man paid me money, I remember feeling proud of myself for having rolled with the punches—for having kept my cool about the stir-frying thing. For a split second I thought I could make it. That even though I had a few things stacked against me, I could work and make money and eventually make it off the streets

    That was a really good day, and that moment has stayed near me for decades. But I didn’t write about it in the book. Instead I contained the moment and wrote completely fictional events and dialogue to better explore and express just how complex a feeling like pride and hope can be for someone who’s on the verge hopelessness as Joon is in “Avon.” Incidentally, I also didn’t write about actual events that occurred while I sold Avon door to door either. Basically, my approach to this material was inspired by Hemingway’s iceberg principle: for every part of the iceberg we see, seven-eighths of it is underwater, strengthening the iceberg.

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