Please welcome Shelley Blanton-Stroud.
It took me quite a while to figure out what my book, Copy Boy, would be, my trouble mostly arising from the gap between fact and truth. Facts are verifiable things. Truth is the meaning an individual makes of the facts we choose to consider.
I first began to write ten years ago by focusing on my own family’s history of moving west to California from Texas and Oklahoma in the Dust Bowl exodus of Okies looking for work in the Great Depression. I was thinking about a memoir because I had access to the facts. My father, especially, had dramatic stories to tell, one of which now sets my book in motion. But it soon became obvious that the “facts” changed in his every retelling—how old he was, exactly where the incident took place. And the facts really changed when my father’s siblings shared their versions of the family story. That’s what happens with memory and with storytelling. Though I knew my father was telling his truth, I was unsure of what the facts really were. I didn’t think I could get a memoir right.
So, I decided to turn to traditional historical references—books and newspapers about the Dust Bowl/Great Depression period in California—for a more-complete context on my family’s life. But there was often so much missing in these sources—the feel of the time.
I turned to more subjective, artistic, personal work from the period—the photographs and biography of WPA photographer Dorothea Lange, the essays of the iconic columnist Herb Caen, the biographies of folk roots musician Woody Guthrie and SF Chronicle editor in chief, Paul C. Smith. There was a lot in these sources to use.
I decided. I was going to write a historical novel.
But I soon learned the problem with doing so is the way fact and truth conflict, every scene requiring a negotiation between the two. Could I use the names of real-life people in my fiction? Many authors do this, to great effect. And I have done so, on the periphery—most notably, letting J. R. Oppenheimer wax philosophic and bed an important character. But I didn’t feel I could do so with the major characters. I couldn’t take the risk of getting their lives wrong, factually, in order to create what was my truth about these lives. I couldn’t limit the story to what “really happened.”
Yet, even though a person might think authors of straight historical nonfiction would have an absolute obligation to only rely on facts, many such authors turn to fictive techniques—creating composite characters, recreating conversations the writer never heard or read, creating interior thought based on speculation.
At any rate, for me, it doesn’t make sense to expect a big fat line between fact and fiction; because scholars have by now established that all memory is a kind of fiction. We never remember things objectively. Such nonfiction is less like fact than it is like what we call “truth”—a mix of verifiable facts and one person’s impressions and reflections about those facts, arrived at via memory.
Even when the nonfiction historical writer has zero intention to use fictive strategies, if they collect ten facts but use only nine, the elimination of that ninth fact, the choice of the writer to focus here, but not there, in favor of their sense of the truth, introduces the potential for inaccuracy. When you collect verified facts and then choose which of those you will write about, you are subjectively creating a particular truth the reader will perceive, and perhaps believe.
This is a moral weight that historical novelists must bear.
In Copy Boy, I found early inspiration for my protagonist in the life of iconic San Francisco columnist, Herb Caen. I never considered using his name (even when my protagonist was a boy, before I turned him into a cross-dressing girl), not just because it would be too hard to get everything “right” but because I wanted the freedom to make my protagonist behave very badly. I wanted to let her run to the edges of what the real-life writer might have been tempted to do. I wanted the freedom of letting her do awful things, without the guilt of attaching a real person’s name to that behavior.
This was doubly important to me about my father’s stories, which inspired so much in the book. But those scenes in the novel are not the same as his stories. The facts aren’t the same. And my truth in using those stories is different than his truth in telling them in the first place.
Still, I breathed in relief at his comment after he read my final version of the first chapter based on his story—Good job. That’s not what really happened.
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All images courtesy Shelly Blanton-Stroud