Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Reality Check

I don’t usually talk about my current writing project. It’s a characteristic I developed back when I was writing my first novel over a three-year period while I toiled at a big downtown law firm. I basically kept my project to myself, not wanting to advertise an endeavor that could ultimately fail. I didn’t want the “Hey-what-happened-to-that-book-you-were-writing?” question. I have generally kept to this practice, developing and molding my latest novel in isolation.

But hey, this is a blog about writing, so here goes.

An interesting thing has happened to the current novel I am writing. Not the one coming out in September—The Hidden Man—but the one for 2010, with the working title Pretenders. I started writing that novel last summer and fall, with an eye toward finishing by year’s end and before the new General Assembly session in January, 2009. Then a funny thing happened: Rod Blagojevich was arrested on December 9, 2008, and I was thrust into the impeachment of our governor. The novel stopped in its tracks.

Ironically, the novel I was (am) writing is about political corruption. It was loosely based on what I saw happening around me. Pay-to-play corruption, that kind of thing. I thought it would be interesting for people to see how these things happen, from the viewpoint of someone who was watching it from a distance, but not much of a distance.

But selling a senate seat to the highest bidder? “I’ve got this thing and it’s f---in’ golden?” Extorting the Chicago Tribune to fire its editorial board? I mean, people, you can’t make this stuff up. Our idiot governor actually trumped me. He made the scandal I was writing about look like a jaywalking ticket.

That’s part of my problem, the effect of external circumstances. I'm the guy who convicted Blagojevich, so when I write a book about a crooked governor, people are going to be expecting to read about what I experienced. I have touched on political corruption in the past with my novels, but I have never gotten too close to fact. I write a fictional city, not Chicago and not Illinois, so I can distance my characters from real politicians, many of whom I know. I keep a distance, in short. And that’s going to be difficult here. If I write too close to truth, I violate my rule. If I don’t, I disappoint some readers.

But that’s only part of it. I mean, I’m a grown-up, I can work through that problem. The other problem is this write-what-you-know concept. I definitely know how to write about political corruption, but maybe I am too close to it. I am too demanding of myself when it comes to this topic. I want it to be too perfect. Tell me to write about a cop, and though I’ve never been one, I can research and ask questions and, frankly, avoid anything that I don’t know well enough and make it work. But political corruption—I have to do this just right, and I am struggling to hit it right on the head. I have hit the “delete” button and cussed like a truck driver more than ever before as a writer.

I am writing about this in part because it’s mildly cathartic, and I thank you for letting my lie on your couch. And don’t take this as self-pity. My assumption is that this roller coaster I am on will result in the best novel I have ever written. I’m not sure why I think that; something about the investment I have made in it, I suppose.

And as frustrating as this is for me, I also find this experience to be fascinating. It makes perfect sense to write about an area in which you have expertise; we authors do it all the time and I am no different. But how close is too close? How do you set boundaries? I have never confronted this before. It’s like I am at war with myself. I am competing with a real-life experience.

I wish I had a snappy conclusion to this blog. I don’t. I am fighting through it and probably boring my lovely wife to tears complaining about it. (When I say I don’t talk about existing writing projects, my wife is the exception; she has the good fortune of hearing me whine. I should nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.)

I have enjoyed reading the other authors on this blog, particularly when we talk about the craft. I have learned a lot, and I offer this as another experience of the wretched, the depraved, the lonely, the insane—the novelist. When I work through this, I promise (threaten?) to let you know. And if anyone has any thoughts for me, by all means …..


Libby Hellmann said...

Great post, Dave. Really got me thinking.

There's a self-consciousness that emerges, at least it did with me, when I first started writing fiction. It was as if the stories of the people I was using as templates HAD to be as close to the reality of their lives as possible. Gradually I learned that depending too much on the actual reality of a situation or person can make for a boring, unpersuasive story.

In your case, Dave, it's almost the opposite. Who knew that Blago was going to be fodder for a theater of the absurd?

And yet, I think the solution is to let it go. At least for your fiction. (I wouldnt be surprised if a non-fiction book about your experience is in your future).

Focus on your characters and their reality. What they say, do, or feel is what's important, rather than what Dave's colleagues say, do, or feel. Your characters, whether heros, cowards, or villains, will propel the story, if you let them.

I can't tell you how many times an editor has told me to get out of the way of my characters. I try to remember that.

David Heinzmann said...

I've felt a related obstacle as I juggled the subject matter of my day job covering crime and writing fiction about it. While I was covering the Chicago Police Department beat, I stayed away from making CPD too central to my fiction. I didn't want Tribune readers thinking I was muddying the line between fact and fiction.

I may have been worrying too much about it. Michael Connelly wrote his first three books while he was still covering cops for the LA Times. And when he was in town recently on a book tour, I asked him about this issue during his Q&A at the Borders on State Street.

He said he never feared whether Times readers or his editors at the paper would object to him fictionalizing the unused treasure in his reporting notebook. It was just never an issue. His only concern was making Harry Bosch a balanced and real character. And once the books were out, he found that LA Cops responded pretty well to how he wrote about LAPD.

So, I'd agree with Libby that if you focus on making the characters as real as you can, you needn't worry much about the facts-stranger-than-fiction peculiarities of Illinois government.

abbourgoin said...

I'm still writing my first novel so I don't know how much of an authority I can be on this but I can at the very least offer my perspective.

My main character is an unstable State Trooper on the Major Crimes Squad in Connecticut. He has a drinking problem, a gambling problem, and a slight addiction to high end prostitutes.

Am I worried that once (hopefully) it is published that I will get a knock on my door from the Staties asking why I slandered them? Somewhat, sure, but that's where my character needs to be for the story to work.

His investigations need to be marred by his drinking. His bookie needs to be a prime suspect. His divorce had to be caused by a high end prostitute.

If someone comes knocking, I will just explain to them it's fiction, deal with it. Obviously I'll be a little more tactful than that.

I love the fact that fiction gives us an opening to create whomever and whatever we want. I say, if it works, roll with it.

Great post David.

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby's advice is on target here--your fictional characters become wooden when you try to make them behave like their real-life counterparts--because you distort the storyline, and distort the behavior of your secondary characters by contorting them to fit real-life acts. Also, you can imagine motives for your characters and get into their heads in a way that's only speculative for real-life people. Blago's psychopathology is not interesting, but your fictional person's will be if you make it real for us.

When I worked in the malpractice division at CNA Insurance, we had a TV sitcom cast in our unit: one woman had aspired to a career in dance until an ankle injury ended that, one of the guys was writing an opera at nights, there was me, and another co-worker who studied theater in night school. Our bosses were straight out of The Office. The theater major said we couldn't stage our office because no one would believe it. And it's the insecurities and the nervous tics I've drawn on, not the real-life behavior of my co=workers. The one time I tried doing that (I wrote my first 3 novels while working downtown) I fell exactly into the trap I described above. My agent looked at the ms and said, "This is not only unpublishable, it's unfixable."