Whenever I read a novel, I question what parts of the story were inspired by an actual occurrence in the author’s life. In Julius, for instance, when Corinne’s father offers his opinion of Ossining (“If you like prison towns”) those words were actually spoken by my father when we drove through one afternoon many, many years ago. Other portions of the story are based on real life: my mother’s admiration for Alvah Bessie, my father’s interest in the blacklist, and, of course, all their personal stories about the Spanish Civil War. The rest I made up.
Before embarking on this adventure of writing fiction, I wove these crazy vignettes in my head while I was on the treadmill, walking the dog, or commuting to school or work just for my personal entertainment. Odd observations would creep in these stories as well as snippets of dialog that I picked up from eavesdropping (I confess I am the worst eavesdropper. I tend to actually watch people engage in conversation and typically give myself away with facial expressions).
Now that I want to make a career as a novelist, my eyes and ears are more attuned to my surroundings and what’s being said, but when do you draw the line and say, “Okay this is too personal it should be kept private.” I bring this up because recently there was a tragedy in the Ol’ Man’s family: his thirty-seven year-old son unexpectedly passed away, but there’s enough fodder—both comic and tragic—of the life he led and the circumstances of his death that might make it into a story.
I’m not trying to be insensitive, but this is what novelists do: we file everything that we observe, hear, and experience in our brains. I don’t know whether the actual details of Adam’s death will make it into a future novel, but maybe something related will surface, and it could be anything: a passing comment, a detail in the coroner’s report, the reaction of getting the news of his death, a phrase in the eulogy, or maybe nothing at all. With a novelist, you simply don’t know what they might toss in the mix.
But what about on-the-record or off-the-record? What about it? For the most part, we take something that happened and we turn it into something that could be entirely very different. It’s called fiction. The point is that we get inspired by everything that’s around us. So if you’re paranoid about what you tell a writer—fiction or non-fiction—I suggest self-censoring or perhaps not have any writer friends at all.