by Nancy Means Wright
In the late eighties I published a memoir in which I mentioned, by name, more than a dozen people who had been part of my life. I unabashedly used their real names–in many cases without prior consent or written permission. Was I daft–or just naive, stupid, thoughtless? Just because I treated them “lovingly” as I wrote in the forward, did that make it all right? As it happened, no one sued me, and the book, brought out by small press Down East Books, was a local bestseller because everyone in town, it seemed, hoped s/he might be in it.
And true, there are people who love to be mentioned in a book, and who enter contests to have their name used. This has happened to me–it was fun! Although it has now and then backfired, I understand, by an author who, for example, planted the name on a prostitute or serial killer.
Perhaps the innocence of my memoir encouraged me to use real people off and on in my mysteries, which I began writing in the nineties. My farmer sleuth had three children, so of course I modelled them on my own four, adding myself, memory, and a bit of exaggeration. Don’t we all do this to some extent? Perhaps not. I’ve met writers who insist that their work is pure fiction, and truly, as we announce in our disclaimers, it is “only coincidence” if the character replicates a real person.
For myself though, I can’t quite buy that. I’m amazed at how many novelists–if not writing a roman a clef, have at least based some of the characters on living persons. Rowling, for example, patterned Severus Snape on a former teacher. Joyce’s wife Nora became the infamous Molly Bloom, and Kerouac wrote several friends into On the Road. How otherwise would a character be well rounded, true to life, if not based on human quirks and foibles?
All this has been haunting me recently because of a new work of mystery fiction in which I used the name and appearance of one person only–and this with permission. The man, proprietor of a coffeeshop in which I set a scene, was pleased. Then to my surprise, an acquaintance of mine, whom I respect, read the book and was “surprised,” even shocked to find people she ‘knew” in it. The coffeehouse owner, yes, but also a rather lovable character I called Stormy–named after a psychic my daughters had once consulted, by phone, for help with their love lives. My fictional “Stormy” was actually suggested by a psychic who spoke at a Virginia Book ‘Em festival, and whose visions had helped the local police. And who wrote a book which I read–and then, alas, lost in a major house move.
Yet “Stormy,” my friend insisted, was unmistakably modelled after a local Vermont woman, K, who before she (recently) died, wrote a horoscope column. Apparently I had captured her exactly: appearance, manner of speech, chocolate addiction, visions.
Yet I had never met this woman! Had never heard her speak–had only read her columns now and again, and didn’t realize she was also a psychic! Had I known, I’d never have described her exactly as she was. Moreover, my friend inferred, no one would believe me since I had already written another real person (the cafe owner) into the book. I was truly devastated.
I’ve since heard from other writers with similar experiences, and a non-writer friend suggested to me that K, poor woman, might be “channeling” through me. Does that make me feel better? A little, although I’m a rationalist. And for some reason I still have a measure of “guilt.” The guilt I felt when I modelled characters on my own offspring (never mind they’ve written me into embarrassing stories!). The guilt I felt for spending hours at my writing desk when I should have been mothering.
I felt a little better to read in a 6/30 Sunday Times Book Review essay that reporter-thriller writer Alex Berenson uses the names of former Times colleagues in his novels. “People seem to enjoy being mentioned,” he allowed, “and nobody has complained yet.”
Yet. Well, copies of my book are in the local bookshop. And the publisher let hundreds of e-copies go free in a recent promo. There is the usual disclaimer, of course, in the front matter. Yet now I have the shakes whenever my phone rings. And I think of bestseller Neil Gaiman’s fears that “the first problem of …even limited success (for a writer) is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.”
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