I’m only beginning to feel comfortable telling people that I’m working on a novel. This leads to the question, What’s your novel about? And I say, A grandmother and a granddaughter. Stop. Full stop. In part because the rest of it is too complicated for small talk. In part because I feel like a fraud.
It’s inaccurate to say that I know nothing about this topic, the relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter, but it’s also inaccurate to say that I know from personal experience anything relevant to my book. My grandmothers both played major roles in my childhood, in the shaping of my personality and the memories that continue to mold me. But one died when I was ten, the other when I was twenty-one, and my novel is about an adult grandchild and her grandmother and I have never done this before.
Certainly no novelist is required to have personal experience with a subject before writing about it. This is fiction, after all (and I have to insist on this whenever I offer my one-line novel summary – this is fiction, I am making this up.) In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner writes, “What one needs is not the facts but the feel of the person not oneself… The writer must be not only capable of understanding people different from himself but fascinated by such people.”
This week a friend who has from time to time played the role of my grandmother in my adult life, fell and fractured a bone. I’m far away from her and not really her granddaughter and while I have come to anticipate the ways in which my fictional granddaughter character from my novel would react to such a situation, I had no way to know how I, a real live person, would respond. I thought, I need someone to tell me what I’m supposed to do. So, this week, I turned back to my novel for some kind of answer, because even if I don’t identify with the granddaughter in my novel, I trust her judgment. I know where she’s coming from.
“Good fiction,” Gardner writes, “does not deal in codes of conduct–at least not directly; it affirms responsible humanness.” I’m just a beginning novelist and I have learned about writing and life from (possibly literally) tons of books written by other, more experienced people. But I am also learning about “responsible humanness” from my own fiction, from the stuff I’ve made up from the feel of it, from the fascination, from the love.