Writing: Fiction Must Be Stranger Than Truth

Orange is the New Black

Midway through a pitch at Showtime a few years ago I literally lost the plot. I’d flown in to Los Angeles from London that afternoon. I never sleep flying east to west, so I compensated for my fatigue by over-caffeinating. The caffeine mixed with the adrenaline rush of performance. I became a blithering idiot, human Jell-O right there in the meeting with the network’s top execs. I couldn’t remember the plot or the names of characters I had created and written myself.

Luckily, I had two seasoned producers on either side of me. “The story is autobiographical,” one of them said, trying to pick me up and carry me across the finish line. I shot him a surprised look; that was an outright lie, wasn’t it? I fumbled more under the stress of this new information. Luckily, the word ‘autobiographical’ tapped into another truth: the characters and the story came from within me, their authenticity from my own experience, from splitting my personality into becoming them. Even though I fucked up so badly that a professional pitch coach was subsequently hired to train me up for these meetings, I had somehow harnessed my life to the pitch and the project, and made it to the end of the meeting with the story, characters and premise conveyed.

From my point of view, this particular project of mine, American Bastard, isn’t in the least autobiographical. Had my mother been there, she wouldn’t have just been surprised at my what my producer said, she would have scoff-clucked at him, looked at her watch, declared herself late for an appointment and tottered off to the Colony Club for a bridge tournament. Which is exactly why the producer, who doesn’t come from that world but sees these nuances for the irrelevance that they are, said the project was autobiographical.

American Bastard is my answer to Gossip Girl, which I found an outrageous misrepresentation of the particular socio-cultural group in New York City from whence I hail. I don’t care that the first few seasons were wildly successful, that even friends of mine from my same background found it entertaining; I know that the real world it purports to portray is a miserable Grand Guignol of dysfunctionality and mental illness that is worthy of a more authentic representation, on a TV show that would be at least as enthralling.

The reason my mother would have scoffed at the ‘autobiographical’ assertion is because the hero of my story, Richie, is a fifteen-year-old boy whose mother dies in the very first sequence, leaving him with a schizophrenic, promiscuous aunt in a huge apartment on Fifth Avenue, and heir to an old publishing fortune worth at least a hundred and fifty million. After a series of misadventures, he is sent to live with the father he has never met, whom his mother never married, in London.

My parents were both very much married when I was born and are worth nowhere near that amount. Still, I do come from that world, and I was raised in Europe. While American Bastard is even less my story than Orange is the New Black is Piper Kerman’s, in fairness to my producer I’m hardly inventing Middle-earth here: I have lived this; I have known these people; I have been reprimanded in the headmaster’s office of that elite private school; I have befriended that prince and played hide-and-seek in his palace.

There was much ado, rightly, about the recent season two of Orange Is the New Black, which was dropped in its entirety on Netflix at the beginning of this month. The online clickbait-and-snark throng circled and chewed on even the most minute details of the series, as it will for any hint of celebrity or silly GIF.

Uproxx ran a listicle — Christ, I hate those things on principle, but can’t resist them any more than I can stop taking personality tests and which-Harry-Potter-character-are-you quizzes — on the five key differences between the Kerman’s memoir and the show. Basically, creator and showrunner Jenji Kohan has invented most of it: the real Piper maintained her relationship with husband, Larry, the entire time she was in ‘prison’; she never had sex with the former lesbian lover who ratted her out (would you?), and she was only in the same prison her when they were both in Chicago to testify again co-conspirators; she experienced no violence; most of the other characters are fictional.

In other words, the real story is just about a WASP girl, a Miss Porter’s alum, who did eleven months in a minimum-security facility in Danbury, CT, that is actually described as a ‘camp’ rather than a prison. How boring… although I’m sure Lena Dunham could have made the realer thing just as interesting as Kohan’s fakery.

I was intrigued by the Uproxx listicle because I’d wondered how much of the real story was maintained in the TV version. Whatever Kohan’s fictionalization, the show feels authentic, except for some over-the-top characterizations of the kind that are Kohan’s hallmark, a bad habit of many TV dramas but a good habit of all comedies, both TV and big screen. However, Kohan has grown up and dialed back the cartoonishness considerably compared to her previous outing, Weeds, which became unbearable towards the end, like watching hammy children having a sandbox pretend incessantly repeating the same theme.

It’s not as if Kohan is trying to pull the wool over our eyes by claiming OITNB is real. Piper Kerman is now Piper Chapman; why change the name if this is meant to be a biopic? Even the location of the prison is different. The change is hardly meant to protect the innocent. It’s to proclaim the fictionalization. (Most professional scribes and producers are aware that the only life rights they need to secure are the original author’s. Anything Piper Kerman has experienced she has a right to talk about, no name or location changes needed.)

Taylor Schilling with the real Piper Kerman.

Pretty authentic: Taylor Schilling with the Piper Kerman.

The most authentic thing about OITNB is the title sequence, which I have always assumed to be a montage of the mouths of real women who have been incarcerated. It turns out I’m correct. That grating, earworm of a theme song by Regina Spektor notwithstanding, I gather from the visual statement of the mouth montage that what we are about to see is an amalgam or real stories, voices and characters, with Piper Kerman’s liberally adulterated experience as the anchor. And using Kerman is a wise choice on Kohan’s part: the idea of someone from the top of America’s pecking order — i.e., the kind who can afford premium cable — thrust into a communal living situation with the lowest of the low provides the heroine with higher stakes and a weighty character arc than if she were just an ordinary crim.

I’m finally reading my friend Charlie Graeber’s excellent book The Good Nurse. I’m picking my way through it slowly; with all the filmed content I have to keep up with, all of the reams of online text I read, plus my own work, it’s tough to find more than an hour every couple of days for books, and I’m a slow, distracted reader. Charlie’s book is strictly non-fiction, a superbly written piece of investigative journalism about Charles Cullen, America’s most prolific civilian serial killer. (I specify ‘civilian’ because I consider politicians who instigate warfare that isn’t strictly in defense of an attack on the nation or on our allies to be mass murderers.)

Charlie is in talks with one of Hollywood’s better directors of awards-season fare about turning it into a film. Every production has a main obstacle, and it would seem that with the The Good Nurse it’s a question of angle. I am still in the first part of the book, but I can see where the director is struggling to find a compelling anchor for the narrative. The killer himself is out of the question as the protagonist — he must remain the antagonist. That would leave the detectives in charge of the case to be the usual heroes, but the director in question isn’t the type to take a usual approach. Personally, my first inclination would be to tell the story from Charlie Graeber’s point of view; he is leading-man sexy, with a voice that charms the knickers off men and women alike. But I’m not this director, and wouldn’t be the right person for the script, either.

Whatever the ultimate approach — and the project will have to battle the normal vicissitudes of filmmaking process to ever see the light of day even if the perfect angle is found — there will be some fictionalizing to whittle it down to a two-hour screen time. Charlie’s meticulous journalism is likely going to be compromised in some way as non-fiction literature is necessarily fictionalized into film.

This is why I’ve never understood the inevitable articles that come out when biopics are released complaining about how untrue the movie is compared to what really happened. The Daily Beast in particular excels at dragging out ‘experts’ to debunk a popular film based on real events, whether it’s Argo or 12 Years a Slave. It seems obvious to me that to condense so much real time into acceptable theatrical length would entail such liberal amounts of artistic license that the end result could at best be described as an impression of actual events rather than an accurate depiction. Then again, I am not panhandling for clicks by trying to stir up debate over something so inherently uncontestable.

“Write what you know,” is the old cliché. I think that’s missing “as often as possible” at the end. Another best-selling author friend, Zoë Heller, who has had her novel Notes on a Scandal turned into a motion picture, recently wrote in The New York Times, “You should write what you really know — as opposed to a slick, bowdlerized version of what you know.” She then goes on to elaborate that it isn’t just about what happens to you, it’s also about what you observe, what others close to you experience. It’s authenticity that’s the key, even if it is osmotic.

I sort of agree with Zoë; it depends on the project, so I agree with her situationally.

A few years ago, I adapted a script of mine that was an authentic merger of my experience with the experiences of two new friends I’d spent time with near an air-force base in Scotland. The novel languished after its first draft — just the fact I finished a novel at all, as a screenwriter, was an accomplishment — and it needs eight or so more drafts to be presentable. It took me a couple of years to realize that it was lacking something essential to hook the reader: a touch of the supernatural, some magic. I have to inject a certain Gabriel Garcia Marquez element. While it might be fantastical, that element is actually organic to what I’ve already written, and therefore arises from my actual experience. Also, because this is my life, my drama, my sadness, it’s too serious, too gloomy. It just needs a wee nudge of midsummer night’s fairy dust and comedy.

The same producer who dragged me over the finish line with the American Bastard pitch to Showtime said to me once, “Write as if it’s taking place in a parallel universe where anything is possible. Don’t be afraid to shake things up.” This was with regard to rethinking the ending of a film I’ve written that I’m directing next year. It’s an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Winter’s Dream that has so much of my own life and recent romantic relationship in it that it has gone from being based on Fitzgerald to being only loosely inspired by his short story. It turns out I didn’t need to venture too far into a parallel universe to find the solution for this particular piece, but I will need to go there for the aforementioned novel-in-limbo.

I like to say that the Forest of Story is limitless. The greatest jaadugar faker of all living novelists, Salman Rushdie, calls it the “sea of story,” but I prefer my analogy; it’s more precise. Stories have plot points, characters, devices, all of which have the spiky singularity of trees. While I agree that a narrative should flow easily, I prefer to associate that aspect with wind through the pines rather than the currents of a sea.

Was Watership Down any less effective because it was told from the point of view of rabbits? No. Are Garcia Marquez and Rushdie lesser novelists than Hemingway because they prefer veins of magic and surrealism to course through their work and carry it forward? No. Fitzgerald wrote both the supernatural The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and far more realistic The Great Gatsby. That lion of literary realism John Updike wrote the “Rabbit” series, basically fictionalizing his life over four novels and one novella, but arguably his bigger commercial success is the magic-infused The Witches of Eastwick.

I enjoy sci-fi as much as non-fiction and everything in between, provided it’s well written and the story is engaging and clever. It not just “to thine own self be true,” but “to the story be truest.”

How do you know what to do, which route to take? Why, just listen to the wind gusting through the Forest of Story; it may take a while, but it will tell you eventually. Wherever you go with it, relax: in recounting events, it’s impossible ever to be completely truthful. You’d might as well revel in the strangeness of fiction, and get lost in its tangled groves.


Comments: 2

  • Formerly Eric J Baker June 25, 20144:17 pm

    So which Harry Potter character are you? 

    Like so many writing cliches, “Write what you know” is only part of the story.  It should really be “Write what you know when the thing you don’t know is going to make you look like an ass.” Kind of unwieldy, so I get why it doesn’t work. What I mean is, don’t set a story on a submarine with characters entirely composed of military men if you’ve never been on a submarine or in the military and in general don’t give a shit about  torpedoes and gauges and ballast (unless it’s a porn script where the demand for realism is less stringent). Everyone will know you’re making shit up. On the other hand, if I really wrote what I know, all my stories would be about growing up lower middle class in the shitty corner of town and working in record stores and stuff. So maybe I write a story about a lower middle class dude working at a record store that happens to house a portal to an alternate universe where everyone lives on a giant submarine.

    Speaking to the title of this piece, that has been a long learning curve for me as a fiction writer. No one remembers the story that made them say, “Hmmm. That was pretty plausible. I can see it happening. Props on the authenticity.” They remember the one that had them hanging on the edge with high stakes and big drama. I’m not advocating bad writing, but I’ve remembered some pretty terrible novels that, if nothing else, where not afraid to strain credulity in places for the sake of excitement and tension. 

    I still find myself playing it safe sometimes, and I have to remind me that it’s not called The Texas Butter Knife Wounding.

  • jkillough June 25, 20147:46 pm

    Formerly Eric J Baker I dunno. I was thinking about Shakespeare today. How much could he have known? Was knowing the point? He didn’t write novels.
    But at least we know about writing when we write about it.

Leave a Comment