A Tricoastal Woman: Not Autobiography


“Have you ever killed anybody?”

That question, from a close friend who has read a lot of my fiction, startled me. “No, of course not,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, you write about it a lot.”

I suppose I do. While my fiction is all over the place, I do write a lot of military science fiction and other adventure stories. Those are the kinds of stories in which people get killed.

I used to say that the best stories always had a moral dilemma and a fight scene. I’ve written quite a few of those.

But they’re stories. Unlike my musings on this blog, they’re not about me.

Truth is, one of the reasons I write fiction is so I can feel what it’s like to be somebody I’ll never get to be. Life is short, and any decision you make to do one thing means there are a thousand others you’ll never get to try.

A lot of the things I’d like to do are probably impossible (right now), anyway. I doubt I’ll get the chance to meet an alien species. Or even walk on another planet.

And I’ll never be a teenaged boy hanging out in a pool hall.

I’ve never written about that teenaged boy, but I remember with great clarity the feeling that came over me at about the age of nineteen when I realized that I would never get to experience that particular aspect of life. It was deeply depressing.

Mind you, it wasn’t that I wanted to be male instead of female. It was that I wanted to know what it would be like to be a boy (it was definitely a boy) in that situation.

Going to a pool hall as a teenaged girl wouldn’t have solved that problem, especially back in the day when gender roles were even more rigidly fixed than they are now. There was no way I could have gone to a pool hall when I was a girl and not had sex enter into the equation. Particularly when we’re talking about the pool halls in my home town. In fact, I’m not even sure they let girls in the pool hall.

(Though I’m still mad at my father because I didn’t find out until much later in life that he was very skilled at pool and could have taught me. But instead of teaching me to play pool, he encouraged me to learn to type so I could always make some money. I could have made much better money as a pool shark than I’ve ever made from typing.)

But we were talking about fiction and how it’s more about things I’ll never get to do than about the things I’ve done. Not that I don’t bring my experiences – especially my emotional ones – into my story. And, of course, I bring in the experiences of others.

Ben Jeapes has a nice piece about the myth of writing what you know over on the Milford blog.

I’ve never divorced, had a serious illness or died, but friends have and (sorry guys) you can bet I was paying close attention. And each of those experiences, or scenarios developed and extrapolated from them, has appeared in my published writing.

Jami Attenberg wrote in the New York Times about the way so many readers and critics and book tour interviewers want to read fiction as autobiography.

I liked these lines:

Why don’t people just read the fiction, though? What is behind the fascination with the real-life connection between authors and their work?

One of the reasons I like science fiction is that some authors are truly imaginative and come up with a story that shatters my ideas of reality, and yet the characters and their situations still come across as real. Andrea Hairston does this for me in Mindscape.

It’s that blend of human understanding and imagination that makes fiction truly work for me.

So no, I’ve never killed anybody. I’ve fired a gun, but only at a target. I do know how to use a Japanese sword and I probably could kill someone with that, but I’m not planning to do so.

I’ve trained in martial arts for a lot of years, so I know how to fight and have some understanding of strategy. And also know that people who develop real mastery of such arts rarely go looking for a fight, though they also rarely run away from a necessary one. That knowledge works its way into my stories.

I have to say, I’m really glad I’ve never killed anyone. There are some experiences in life I really don’t want to have.



A Tricoastal Woman: Not Autobiography — 6 Comments

  1. Amen. I think that probably serves for a lot of us. I’ve only flown in dreams, but so vividly that I can describe it. I wish I could fly! But I can in stories. That goes for a lot of other experiences I can only imagine.

    BTW the pool table as a female, yeah. I had to learn to play pool in self defense when I had a job at a really, really grungy bar. (It was the only one I could get.) I got pretty good–and it was fun–but it was also annoying in that if a guy ran the table, the other guys would watch his skill and ooh and ah. But if I ran the table, they were watching my ass and making comments. Pool hall guys, especially at bars, were not particularly good company.

    • Yeah, I don’t think I’d have really liked hanging out in pool halls. It was just that the fact I’d never be a boy handing out in a pool hall struck me so forcefully at one point that I can still remember the emotion.

  2. Heh, my ever-lovin’ and I bonded over pool way back when. It wasn’t in a pool hall though, but a friend’s basement. Pool wasn’t considered to be the average girly activity, but I always was a bit of a rebel…

    • When I was running a law office in North Texas, one of my paralegals taught me to shoot pool. She was something of a rebel, too. By that point, there were respectable pool halls around. We used to play on our lunch hour.

      But she wasn’t as good as my father, who was taking money off of teenagers at pool when he was in his 60s and wearing trifocals. In his day, he could do a great bank shot, which I never mastered.

  3. Does anybody ever worry about being with Stephen King? No. They know that his demon dogs, etc. are in his head. (At least we hope so.)
    What readers instinctively know, and we writers always confirm, is that all our fiction sucks material from real life. I forget which author it was, whose landlord stiffed him for the security deposit. That landlord dies in every novel — fantasy authors always need a body count.
    And then there is happy wish-fulfillment. The things we cannot do (flying), the things we could never have done (pool, marching in Antarctica with Scott), the hunky men we shall never meet and bed in real life — all these things can merrily be wedged into fiction. Dorothy Sayers reports that, when she was young and poor, she invented the well-heeled Lord Peter Wimsey, and she gave him all the luxuries she could not afford. Including a sports car, and when she felt dull she let him drive it.

    • Having seen the fence around Stephen King’s home in Bangor, Maine, which looks like it belongs to the Addams family, I have my suspicions. (More seriously, according to people from Bangor, he is the all time nice guy who does things for his local community since he has the wherewithall.)

      I’ve also heard it said that Sayers invented Lord Peter as a contrast to the real men she knew. I do suspect her of drawing on a lot of people she knew for the minor characters in Strong Poison — including perhaps Harriet’s late lover.