Using your Family

Souvenir de Oaxaca Bonne et Heureuse Année 2013

We might not all have such an adorable family as these three little girls photographed by the artist Marie-Louise Gay in Oaxaca, Mexico, as part of the never-ending Christmas celebrations down there, but all our families are rich in material that finds its way onto the pages of our stories. Some of us are a little squeamish at times; are we really going to unleash that dark family secret on the world? And then what…? I promised not to tell…

I tend to take a “damn the torpedos” approach to family riches. Use whatever’s there. It belongs to you. I do draw the line, though, with children, and that means adult children too. I won’t say anything about a child that he/she would not want to be known. So I have limits after all.

I have used family stories to great excess. I once had a fire-breathing dragoness of a cousin named Pearl claim to me that “that Russian in that Frenchman’s novel, you know who I mean, the guy who doesn’t kill who he’s supposed to, he’s your cousin.” It took me years to figure out what the heck she was talking about. The Frenchman turned out to be André Malraux, the novel Man’s Fate (I think…), the page-one scene an assassin hesitating over thrusting in the knife because the victim-to-be is sleeping. And the man with the knife? Hats off, Pearl, he is my cousin. And so Sonya & Jack (1995) was born.

When I discovered that I had a gangster in the family, a Prohibition-era Chicago bootlegger, a nasty piece of work — well, what writer can resist? That will be the setting for my next novel come spring 2014. Were any family members offended by being turned into characters? Not at all, they were pleased as punch. They had made it into a book!

We can’t talk family without sending out a salute to Alice Munro. She decorticated families and marriages like no other, explored disappointment and the wear-and-tear of relationships, but always with compassion and not assigning blame to one sex or the other. Those latter traits got her the Prize, and with reason. A lot of what happens in her stories doesn’t happen — the actions contemplated but not undertaken, the words left unspoken. The music is what’s in between the notes as they say in the world of jazz.

2 thoughts on “Using your Family

  1. How often do you find your family has inadvertantly crept in? After all much of what is written is drawn from our circle of reference, which, I am sure, for you is quite broad.

  2. To Oddsnends: I wouldn’t say “inadvertantly,” actually; usually I’m quite aware of my aims and intentions. Though odd memories can often work their way in. This is what happened in “Midway” with the character remembering how he used to hide in the front closet and, later, how he would spend all day “stuck” between two buildings, waiting to be rescued. I didn’t intend to write that until my fingers hit the keyboard.

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