Monday, December 9, 2013

Aurelie Sheehan Comes Out of Hiding

In the 48th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Aurelie Sheehan, author of Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories (BOA Editiions), parses the strange relationship between truth and fiction in storytelling.

When I was in college my teacher said, as teachers sometimes do, write what you know. Excellent idea. But at the time it also seemed essential to mask the origins of any given work. First of all, this was fiction, and so by definition an imagined world. Secondly, and probably more importantly, I found it necessary to the point of despair to separate characters or circumstances from their inspirations (especially if those inspirations were my father or mother or boyfriends I might have had—or myself). Thus brown-haired “inspirations” would find themselves blond in my stories, brown eyes would become, alas, gray or green, and people would up and move to New Jersey when they might have more likely come from Connecticut (had my garden not been one of pure Anxiety).

Fictional setting?
The Chrysler Building
This compulsion to mask was new. As a child, I didn’t write about myself, at least not consciously. I wrote about gods and monsters, and therefore didn’t require the shifty secondary move in which I made Ken “Joe” or Jenny “Kate.” My need to write out of reality, or let’s call it lived experience, came at the same time as an equally strong interest in hiding. I was sure my clothes, gait, musical tastes—the very expression I wore on my face—needed to be carefully crafted for impact, my interior tucked away.

Time passed. Novels were written. Chitchatting after readings, I’d find myself saying, “Like Alison, I grew up in Connecticut in the Seventies, though we are very different people,” or “As it turns out, I too worked as a secretary in a law firm in the Chrysler Building, but this is an imagined story.” Damn it, a full-on adult, and still the shiftiness! Yet I wanted to—I needed to, for legal reasons if nothing else—separate out from my characters. I used my own experience as inspiration, but the narrative details deviated from what I had actually lived. It was a value-added My Life; it was Me—with benefits. But was it me? No. Or yes? The ambivalence is, exasperatingly or intriguingly, obvious at the sentence level.
"Winona Bartlett, Win to her friends, might not have been the world’s best secretary, but her nature was such that serving, subservience, and coffee service came easily, and, in fact, she felt there was an inherent good in doing things well… "
I am not Winona—my name is Aurelie. I was a fine secretary (though a little bit roiling inside and a little bit going insane). My nature is such that those things do come easily—or they did—but there are other qualities too, that make up about 75% of me.

In my new book of stories, Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories, I wanted to work with this edge, this double life as fiction writer and reality revealer, more directly—hence these pieces are “fiction” but they are also “history.” For once I just grabbed what I wanted from my own life without apology. Doing this was useful, not because it got me any closer to writing a memoir or autobiography, but because shifting the paradigm broke the locks on some stories. The pieces in Jewelry Box are no more or less confessional or factual than the stories and novels that I carefully constructed not to be me. What changed, simply, was a sense of prerogative. I made liberal use of my life, finding or revealing or creating a passel of psychological, intellectual, and imagined states. I wrote what I knew (!), using the craft of fiction to tell my own stories.