Leora Skolkin-Smith: Writing fiction too convincingly

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Leora SkolkinAfter completing my first novel, I didn’t mind when people came up to me after a reading and talked to me as if I had personally experienced the wars between Palestine and Israel in the 1960s. I must admit it was flattering after so many years of being a mere shadow on a landscape upon which my mother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother were born. My mother’s family were native Jewish Palestinians, dating far back to the beginning of the nineteenth century when my great-grandmother and great-grandfather settled in ancient Jerusalem, beginning our family. My grandfather founded and ran the very first department store in old Jerusalem, my uncles, aunts, and mother all fought in the Jewish underground from the 1930s through the creation of the State of Israel. Some branches of the family even dated as far back to Palestine as the 1600s. Though I had never personally experienced the causalities and sorrows of the constant war in Jerusalem, I felt a rightful heir to its history, current and past. So I did not bother to correct the many people who assumed that, like my main character, I had absconded behind the borders as a young girl of only fourteen, running off with an American diplomat’s son. I didn’t of course do any of those things and was usually safe inside my grandmother’s home when I visited Israel as a child, the fighting far away.

During my many visits to my mother’s family house in Jerusalem from my home in America, I wasn’t even permitted to go into the streets if there was news of another skirmish. Still, I relished the new self-definition my first novel gave me. Though I lived in America, my mother took me every three years to spend summers in Jerusalem since I was a very young child. When I published Edges, I was suddenly recognized as a person who had a “voice” in a history where, before I had felt an outsider, only a child in a vastly fascinating, though violent and foreign, land. I had finally laid claim to my heritage by writing a fiction convincing enough for people to think I had lived its history myself.

I had no idea where this new presumptuousness would lead until I wrote and published my second novel, Hystera. This time, Hystera, I wrote about a psychotic woman incarcerated inside a mental institution in 1974. Set in the turbulent 1970s, HYSTERA is a story of a young woman who retreats from the outside world into a world of delusion and the private terrors of a New York City Psychiatric Hospital. Suffering from a sexual delusion and just plain “crazy,” I had hoped my character would be affecting and moving to readers. I took great pains trying to describe her inner life as authentically and convincingly as I could. I wanted to make her feel “real” to the reader, the issues of mental illness were so pressing for me, I had witnessed too many people suffer under society’s stigma.

What I didn’t bank on was that readers, as with Edges, would immediately assume I was writing pure autobiography. That the mentally ill character was really me. I was introduced as a “memoirist” many times (thought the novel is written as a narrative in third person) and everywhere I read, people looked at me with great consternation and concern. Many said things like “I am so sorry you went into a mental hospital when you were young. I do hope this writing was therapeutic for you.” What? I wanted to scream. It’s not me, I’m not her. No I was NEVER crazy like that. But the more I protested, the more people thought I was only being defensive, nodding but not believing me, “Sure, I understand,” they would retort.

I don’t have a clear answer for the contradictory pleasures in creating a fiction narrative that convinces readers that you, the writer, are, indeed, the main character. It is both a fine compliment and a curse that people believe your fiction is so “real” and you can congratulate yourself for achieving such convincing, authentic-sounding prose. Perhaps this confusion on the reader’s part reflects a more profound problem in our story-telling world that now includes reality TV shows, and a myriad of confessional tell-all memoirs, rarely separating truth from fiction.

But it is a given these days as a published writer, that although you’ve published your work as “a novel,” the first question in nearly every interview and book club visit is whether the book is based on a true story. How one answers that has proven to me to be a lot more complicated than I once imagined. Where does truth end and fiction begin when, often, if a book is good, it will tell a deeper truth through inventing a fiction to contain it, or as Picasso once said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” In such a blurring of boundaries, there are a lot of spaces the reader will fill in. How an author will suffer or delight in the mix-up seems a new challenge.

HysteraLeora Skolkin-Smith is one of the newer authors to join The Story Plant. You can learn more about her and her book at our website. This piece was originally published by San Francisco Book Review.

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» Inside Look » Leora Skolkin-Smith: Writing fiction too...
On October 16, 2013
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