Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Why is a faction, blending fact with fiction, unacceptable as a genre in literary works?

A faction is, indeed, a blending of fact and fiction (as is the word itself). The term is problematic because readers want to know which category a book falls into, and “faction” doesn’t provide that. Of course, blending fact and fiction in literature isn’t all that uncommon, and authors often signal to readers very clearly what the book’s leanings are by sorting it out it in the preface, or by choosing a more precise label. An historical novel, for example, is a fictional account of real events or real people. Both literary nonfiction and the nonfiction novel dramatize real events and real people, but—in theory, at least—stick close to reality. Still, even these attempts to clarify can create questions and, at times, controversy, the root of which is found in the ambiguity of where the work departs from reality.

Case in point: Maria Flook’s Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod, a literary nonfiction, is about the mysterious murder of Christa Worthington, a fashion writer who left New York City to live in Truro, Massachusetts, the town where she summered as a child. In Truro she became pregnant by Tony Jackett, a married man and a father of six, and decided to raise the child, Ava, alone. In the book, Flook investigates the facts of this case by interviewing Christa’s family, friends, and neighbors, looking at police photographs from the crime scene, and talking with First Assistant District Attorney Michael O’Keefe. Indeed, she stays close to the facts of the case and of what various people make of those facts. She even addresses the ambiguities directly: “Whether Christa snagged her pregnancy from her ex-smuggler fisherman, or if the baby was a complete surprise to her, remains an unsolved question. Of their union, there remains only one primary source, Tony Jackett.”

But here’s where things get sketchy for some readers: Flook dramatizes what remained unobserved in real life. When Christa is trying to get pregnant, Flook imagines her way into Christa’s thoughts about Tony: “she felt his force, that river of testosterone that seemed almost audible, coursing through him.” And Flook dramatizes scenes she did not witness, including Ava’s actions in the time between Christa’s murder and the discovery of her body. Flook describes Ava petting the “silvery coat” of a field mouse, and “marching her fingertips across Christa’s eyelids and down the bridge of her nose.” Some would argue Flook is justified in this based on the intensity of her research, her honesty regarding what was witnessed—and by whom—and what was not, and perhaps even Flook’s identification with Christa. (Though they never met, both were writers and single mothers living in Truro.) Others say it is a breech in journalistic ethics.

Even fictional novels based on reality, which don’t claim to adhere to fact the way nonfiction books do, run into complications. Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest is a fictional novel that imagines the story of Adolf Hitler’s childhood through the eyes of Dieter, a demon posing as one of Hitler’s SS intelligence officers. In some instances Mailer stays true to what is known of Hitler’s family, but in others he fictionalizes. In discussing Hitler’s birth, for example, Mailer told National Public Radio’s All Things Considered: “I take the fictional liberty of assuming, yes, he was an incestuous product. There’s a great deal of historical likelihood of this incest, at various levels of intensity.” In other instances, Mailer fictionalizes entirely, as with the invention of the character Dieter, but also in less obvious details. He ascribes to Heinrich Himmler the theory that “the best human possibilities lie close to the worst.” It is not historically documented that Himmler thought this; rather it is a notion that Mailer, himself, has had for many years.

Some readers find such fiction difficult because fact cannot be readily separated from fictionalization. And these distinctions can be important. Other readers have no problem with this, seeing historical fiction as a means to accomplish larger truths.

Personal memoirs that blend fact and fiction run into these same difficulties. And while this combination will always leave readers wondering where the story steps over into fiction, you should declare your intentions honestly. Readers don’t like to be fooled. (Just ask James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, whose publisher issued refunds to readers who felt deceived when it was revealed that parts of the memoir were fictionalized.) But if a reader goes in knowing your intentions, you acknowledge the questions that might surround your subject and, in the process, make that part of the reading experience. Some readers—and publishers—still won’t to be too keen on that. And some will.