Saturday, October 22, 2011

Telling the Truth While Making Things Up: Guest Post by Joan Leegant, Author of Wherever You Go

I’m thrilled to be able to offer you this guest post by Joan Leegant, author of Wherever You Go, as part of the Wherever You Go read-along that I’m co-hosting this month with Carrie from Books and Movies. After watching Joan’s videos, I sent her the following message: “I’m curious about your writing process. In one of your videos, you mention that you don’t pre-plan your writing (that you are discovering how the story unfolds as you write it) and I wonder how that works when you’re writing about current and politically charged events. Do you worry about getting it ‘right’? What kind of research do you do?” This is what Joan sent me as a reply.

Writing about something that’s based in fact or is topical—what some call “ripped from the headlines”—can pose unusual challenges for a fiction writer. You’re writing about an event that’s actually happened (as Jim Shepard does in his terrific story “Love and Hydrogen,” which takes place in 1937 on the doomed Hindenburg airship) or set amid a real political conflict (like Tim O’Brien’s collection about American soldiers in Vietnam, The Things They Carried), and yet you’re also making things up. How does one go about this? How close to the “facts” must one stay? Are there dangers in sticking too closely to the facts? And is it harder if your story is set in 2011 rather than forty or seventy years ago?

Naturally, you have to get your facts straight. For my novel Wherever You Go, I needed to have a pretty thorough understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the phenomenon of Jewish political extremism in particular. I needed to have an ear for the rhetoric of the radical settlers and a solid grasp of Israeli society. Fortunately, most of that was readily accessible to me. Since 2007 I’ve lived in Israel part of each year; for decades prior, I was a close observer of the country, following a three-year stint in Jerusalem in the late 1970s.

Beyond that, writing a novel with topical elements isn’t all that different from writing any other novel. Always, your characters have to be believable. Their emotions and behaviors have to ring true; otherwise your reader will set aside the book and not go along with the pact you make with them: I will tell you an invented story, but through it I’m going to reveal the truth. You also have to get the details right. Otherwise the reader is catapulted out of the book, thinking, No, it’s not like that. This writer doesn’t speak with authority. Some years ago, I was at an artist colony and read aloud a part of a work-in-progress. The excerpt mentioned an M-5 bus from Queens, NY to Manhattan. At the conclusion of the reading, a painter from New York said, “Your story is good. But there are no buses from Queens to New York with an M. They’re all Q.” My mistake ruined the flow for this reader. Needless to say, I fixed the error. For a scene in Wherever You Go involving an explosion, I spent hours on the Web researching how to make a bomb (I’m still waiting for the FBI to show up at my door).

How much of what I wrote in Wherever You Go is factually true and how much did I make up? What’s true is that extremist groups exist in Israeli society and operate on the West Bank; it’s also true that some Americans are active in these groups. Also true are the physical descriptions: the thousands of birds dotting the sky over Jerusalem at dusk; the security questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport; what it’s like to be in a taxi stuck in traffic when the bomb robot comes to dismantle a suspicious object.

What I made up are the personal stories I tell in Wherever You Go. For instance, there is a violent incident at the heart of the book that I invented. Could it have taken place? Yes, though I don’t know that such an event ever actually occurred. Likewise the characters. I made them up, they aren’t composites of people I know, but there certainly could be a troubled kid like Aaron Blinder, a religious seeker like Mark Greenglass, a woman trying to forgive herself and reconcile with her sister like Yona Stern. I know this, as a writer, from a combination of observation, research, and intuition.

Sometimes being too faithful to the facts can straitjacket your storytelling. I waited to visit several West Bank settlements until the draft was done so that my imagination could have free reign; only when it was done did I go there to check for accuracy and tweak some small details. Writers of autobiographical fiction struggle with this all the time. Just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean it makes for good fiction.

You can probably play a little faster and looser with the facts if your story is set in the past rather than the present. If Jim Shepard made an error describing the defective cooling system of the Hindenburg (which probably caused the fire that caused it to explode), there aren’t a lot of readers who’d know the difference. But you still have to be careful. You need the reader to feel she’s in good hands and that you know what you’re talking about. One novelist, John Dufresne, titled his book on craft The Lie That Tells a Truth. That’s the fiction writer’s goal: to tell the truth. But you get there by way of believable fabrication.

Have you ever had the thought, while reading a novel: “No, it’s not like that. This writer doesn’t speak with authority.” (I can think of one or two examples right off!) What about the opposite, when you feel sure that a book is telling you the truth, even though it’s fiction? (I felt that way about The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, for example, and Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, even though that’s historical fiction wrapped in science fiction.) Thank you, Joan, for this thoughtful post!

For more about Joan and her work, including more guest posts, please visit


  1. Wonderful guest post! I love the line "I will tell you an invented story, but through it I’m going to reveal the truth."

  2. Great guest post. I really enjoyed this book and Joan is a delight!

  3. Sadly, that's how I feel ("No, it's not like that.") about the first Tish Cohen novel I just read, Inside out girl...not about the main character, a girl with Nonverbal Learning Disability NLD, who is well done, but about another character, the teenage girl struggling with her sexual orientation, and about some plot points around some other characters. Just didn't read true to me...

    This post makes me want to read this book!

  4. I loved reading this post, because I was wondering about some of these issues as I read. I had honestly never heard of acts of violence on the part of the settlers, or even that there are radical elements in the Judaic religion - although it makes sense, since that seems to be the norm with any religion.

    How great that she mentioned The Things We Carried - one of my favorite works of autobiographical fiction, and definitely a situation where the author got it right.

  5. I absolutely loved this guest post and it brought me even closer to understanding the way this author creates her magic!!!

  6. Kathy, so do I! It captures very well the best of what fiction can do.

    I'm a bit jealous that you got to meet her in person, Marie!

    Brogan, I hate it when that happens -- it really pulls you out of an otherwise good story when characters behave in unbelievable ways (or what happens to them seems contrived). I think you'd enjoy this book!

    Carrie, one of my questions for Joan will focus on how she figured out what would happen in a situation that occurs near the end of the book. (Sorry that's totally cryptic -- I'm trying to avoid spoilers!) I didn't know anything about the settlers before reading this book. And I haven't read any of the books she mentioned, but now I'm curious about them all!

    Staci, me too!