Lots of writers incorporate real experiences from their own lives into their stories. Examples include Torch by Cheryl Strayed, How to Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Strayed incorporated her own mother’s early death from cancer into her first novel; several other details–such as Northern Minnesota as the setting–also mirror the author’s own life. Like Harper Lee, Mockingbird’s main character, Scout, grew up in rural Alabama with a lawyer father. She also based the character of Dill of real childhood friend Truman Capote. Melville used his own whaling experience to inform his epic novel. Although drawn from actual events, these novels are clearly fiction–the main plots and/or important details deliberately vary from what actually took place. I recently came across several books that take a whole new approach: taking events from the lives of historical people whom the author did not know personally and presenting it as fiction.
I first heard about Frog Music by Emma Donoghue through Goodreads. A friend gave it a glowing review, so I decided to add the novel to my “to-read” list. When I found myself dangerously close to finishing Frog Music, I decided to wander the shelves of the public library in search of my next conquest. I ended up with two–Radioactive by Lauren Redniss and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. I chose Radioactive mainly because of its bright colors. One glance told me it was a biography of Marie and Pierre Curie in picture-book form–I was instantly hooked. Z had popped up on my Goodreads Recommendations after I had read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and a friend had placed it on her own “to-read” list. When the title jumped out at me from a real-life library shelf, I decided to take it as a sign and read the book.
Frog Music is a historical novel which explores the murder of Jenny Bonnet near San Francisco in 1876. Bonnet, a quirky individual infamous for wearing pants, is shot to death through a window by an unknown party in the opening pages. The reader then follows Jenny’s friend Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer/prostitute who really likes her job, as she tries to move forward by finding Jenny’s killer as well as Blanche’s own missing son. In the meantime, Blanche (and the reader) keeps getting pulled back to her memories of Jenny and the events that ultimately lead to her death. I was entranced by the dual journey as well as the many songs from the era which are sprinkled throughout the novel. I thought the plot was very fantastical and inventive–a trio who ran away from the circus, a woman who wears a suit even though her occupation is catching frogs, baby farms! It wasn’t until I’d actually finished the novel and moved on to the Author’s Notes that I realized this was based on a real historical event. I was shocked. To be fair, many important details–such as the identity of Jenny’s killer–are imagined by the author, but the broad facts and almost all the characters in the story are actual circumstances of the case and people whose names came up when Donoghue was researching Bonnet.
Although Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout is essentially a picture-book, I wouldn’t say it’s meant for children; it is just that the narrative is related as much through art as it is through words. Much of this artwork was created through a process called cyanotype which evokes x-rays and radioactive elements (both of which play a part in the tale). I delighted in the story of love in the midst of scientific discovery as well. Redniss precludes her narrative with a disclaimer :
I think this is brilliant–Lauren Redniss is simultaneously proving that she’s done her research–she knows what she’s talking about–and admitting, that although this story is made up almost entirely of plain facts, it is still merely Redniss’s version of events rather than a “true” biography.
I was not expecting to like Z very much. Hemingway’s description of Zelda Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast had prejudiced me against her. The concept itself also seemed a little presumptuous to me–it’s one thing to speculate about the particulars of a long ago murder or to present someone’s life as a tragic picture-book fairy tale. It’s a completely different thing to follow the in-and-outs of a real-life person for 20+ years–to write as if you know the inner most thoughts, hopes, and fears of a woman who spent much of her adult life in the limelight. I mostly decided to read the novel simply because Fate seemed to demand it. I would like to take this moment to thank Fate; I am so glad I read this book. I understand that Therese Anne Fowler has no way of knowing what Zelda was actually thinking when she met Scott Fitzgerald, or relocated to New York or Paris, or gave birth to her only child. Therese Anne Fowler couldn’t possibly know what was going through Zelda’s mind when she decided to become a prima ballerina at 27 or when she was first admitted to a mental institution or diagnosed (many now believe incorrectly diagnosed) of schizophrenia. And yet, I believe her. Reading a novel for me is all about suspending my disbelief–if you can convenience me that, within the rules of your written universe, everything you tell me is possible and even logical, then the battle for my love is already half won. Therese Anne Fowler was able to convince me for 375 pages that I was privy to what Zelda Fitzgerald née Sayre was feeling and thinking at different points throughout her very eventful life. Fowler obviously conducted just as much research as Donoghue or Redniss and it showed in the fullness of her fictionalized Zelda.
The funny thing is, I didn’t mean to read 3 “real life as fiction” books in a row. It just sort of happened. I love stumbling into unforeseen connections like that; it’s what makes wandering so rewarding–if you are willing to keep an open mind, who knows what you may discover?