Writing Too Close to Home

Question: One of your novels that was based on your family created a rift. Do you regret writing it?

Lionel Shriver: No I don’t.  But maybe I should.  My fifth novel, much to my despair because it was not the intention, injured more than one member of my family because they took some of the portraits to heart.  Which were not always kind, I confess.  I regret the hurt.  I don’t regret the book, because I like the book.  And maybe that makes me a jerk because, of course, the book came with the hurt.  You couldn’t have the book without the injuries, so I guess that is a price that I am still willing to have paid, but anyone else who decides to write fiction that is so-called loosely based on real people should take it under advisement, that it is a dangerous thing to do and that’s a well polled quote because you will get into trouble for everything you keep the same and you will get into trouble for everything that you change.  You know? 

And the other killer is, and this is something that I remarked on in this article, you can be incredibly complementary in fiction.  You can play to what this real person likes about themselves for pages and pages, but if you insert as a single line that hits a nerve and violates what that person wants to think of themselves, that’s all they’ll remember.  That is all they will remember.  You know?  And that’s when you really can’t win.  And these perceived insults are forever.  That’s one of the deadly things about the written world.  It’s out there, you can’t take it back. 

And you know, it is a book that the whole plot is made up, people’s professions are made up, it starts out with both parents are dead and at writing, my parents were alive.  And as we speak, my parents are still alive; knock wood, they will stay that way as long as possible.  So, I did, I changed all kinds of things, but it didn’t make any difference. I have a feeling that with the benefit of hindsight there might have been a few lines that I could have changed.  You know those single lines I’m talking about?  I think they could have been slightly altered and made really no significant artistic sacrifice and have done less harm.  And I’m sorry about that.

Recorded on March 12, 2010

The bestselling author learned a lesson when she based characters in a novel on members of her family.

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