A friend once asked if I’d based the guinea pig (mentioned, but offstage) in my first novel on his daughter’s imaginary friend (of whom I’d never heard tell). In his defense: they had the same, unusual name. In my defense: ?!@&?#*%?
Maybe people want novels to be true. Maybe they want to be in those novels. Or maybe they’re terrified of this same thing—of having their secrets exposed. But all authors get asked if we’ve “based the characters on real people”—something that in my experience is actually extremely rare. So what happens when friends and family convince themselves that they’re the ones you’ve written about? I asked a few friends to weigh in with their juiciest stories of supposed identity theft.
The Winged Seed
BOA Editions, April 2013
Reading Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed reminded me of an argument by economist Tyler Cowen. Cowen cautions against our propensity to impose narrative on everything. He claims that life is not a story but a mess, and that in insisting on making sense by giving it a storyline, we actually exclude and erase much of it. This may sound like a damning statement, especially for writers of nonfiction—and yet it seems that (over a decade before Cowen) Lee followed the same philosophy when writing this book.
The Winged Seed was first published in 1995 and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. It is sometimes marketed as a memoir and sometimes as an autobiography, but if we have to put a genre label on it, I propose to call it by its subtitle: a remembrance. Lee presents the reader with a series of memories—his own as well as those that his parents shared with him about their own lives.