Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why Rachel Hall Writes Fiction

In the 58th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Rachel Hall, author of Heirlooms (BkMk Press), lays out the ways in which fiction can get at the truth.

Because the stories in Heirlooms are inspired by family stories of WWII, immigration, and assimilation, I’m often asked why I wrote the collection as fiction. I’ve come to expect this question, but at first I was surprised and flummoxed—and also, honestly, a little annoyed. I bit my tongue, didn’t say what came to mind: I wrote it as fiction because I wanted to, because I love and write stories, because fiction rules! None of these answers would satisfy the interviewers or audience members who ask about genre, though they are in truth, part of the reason. I studied fiction writing at an MFA program that didn’t even offer creative nonfiction workshops. The story form is the language in which I am most proficient. (I was going to say fluent, but even Alice Munro, a master of the short story, admits that each new story makes her feel as if she’s a novice.)

The more thoughtful—and adult—answer is this: I write fiction because it is immersive in a way that creative nonfiction, for all its other qualities, is not. In creative nonfiction, the reader is aware that they are hearing about someone else’s experience. We might sympathize or identify with the narrator, but we don’t forget that we are reading about events that already happened to someone else. Fiction allows us to experience the events ourselves. Hopefully, the reader of Heirlooms is terrified when Lise’s escape is thwarted in “Leaving the Occupied Zone.” Hopefully, the reader, too, feels the complicated, clotted mixture of fear and guilt and shame that prevent Lise from ever speaking of the rape. In fiction, the characters become real to us; we might think of them as friends. We care about them and worry for them, see ourselves in them. Reader and character meld together.

Also important: Fiction allows me to make things up. While many of the stories in Heirlooms sprang from anecdotes I’d heard, there were missing parts, crucial details that no one remembered, and conflicting memories and interpretations. (One could argue that all family stories are fictions.) I needed to invent and embroider to bring these stories to life. The truth is I do this embroidery without even realizing it. When I hear a story, I immediately begin adding and inventing. Soon, I’m not even sure what is factual and what I’ve made up. People like me should perhaps stay away from creative nonfiction with its implicit contract to adhere to what really happened.

William Trevor writes that the short story is “an explosion of truth,” reminding us there are many ways to get at the complicated thing we call reality. I didn’t live through the dark times at the heart of Heirlooms. I grew up hearing these stories, true, but they aren’t mine in the same way that they are my grandparents’ and my mother’s. In choosing fiction, I get to remain backstage as my characters spin under the spotlights. And ultimately this feels like a more honest approach to the material, more true.