Saturday, April 17, 2010

Guest Post by Jennie Shortridge: What Does the Truth Have to Do with Writing Fiction?

When working on my first three novels, I toiled in the garden of personal experience. I wrote about a mother’s war with mental illness and a singer-songwriter daughter who never quite achieves success in Riding with the Queen. I wrote about a food magazine writer who is dissatisfied with the drivel she must produce to pay the rent in Eating Heaven. I wrote about a woman at midlife who can’t quite understand her body or her emotions in Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe.

Even though these details are inspired by my own life, I didn’t want to write thinly veiled memoir or fictionalized autobiography, or even a roman a clef. I just wanted to use bits and pieces of my experience to build stories with verisimilitude. (Kinda like putting your life in a blender, adding a bunch of other ingredients, and pouring out a big old made-up smoothie.)

When it came time to write the fourth book, When She Flew, I was ready to do something different. For many years I’ve collected news clippings of stories that fascinated me. One story kept surfacing, that of a Vietnam vet raising his young daughter in the woods near Portland, OR. Though a Seattle-ite now, I lived in Portland in 2004 when the pair were found by police and brought out of the woods, and I was mesmerized, wondering how it would all play out.

I loved how the very blue-state city of Portland reacted: the citizenry pitched in for a college fund for the girl, raising some $10,000. The girl was not placed in foster care, as one would imagine, nor was the father charged with child abuse or neglect. The police sergeant who took them away from the system and to a shelter instead was lauded in the press.

The events raised so many questions: why did the sergeant go against protocol? What was different about this particular case and these two people? Was the girl really being looked after sufficiently? Through continuing news stories, we learned that she was home-schooled by the father and, at 12 years old, reading at a 12th grade level. A physical exam determined she was healthy, not abused; she didn’t even have any cavities. She was clean and seemingly happy and articulate, even though she lived in a lean-to in the forest.

For me, good stories arise from questions. As a former magazine features writer and generally curious person, I love research. I emailed the police sergeant in Portland and introduced myself. I told him I loved the story, and I appreciated what he did for the father and daughter. I told him I wanted to write the story, but as a novel. In his short reply, I could feel him scratching his head. “Let me come to Portland and buy you lunch,” I wrote back. If I could just talk to him, I thought.

A week later I caught the train to Portland. Inside the darkened restaurant sat just one other person near the back. He was oh-my-god tall, broad-shouldered, shiny bald, wearing dark glasses, a dark suit, and sporting a holster shaped bulge beneath his jacket. He scared the crap out of me.

By the end of lunch, we were simpatico. The events from 2004 were still very much on his mind. Over the next year, I met with him several times in Portland and emailed and called him with questions while writing. Getting the details of police procedure and forest setting were the fun parts of the process. He even took me hiking to the encampment one hot summer day, the best research I could have hoped for, complete with the ghosts of the characters swirling about and a red yo-yo pulled from the earth beneath where their lean-to had been.

What I didn’t realize when embarking on this book, however, was how difficult it would be to figure out which truths to tell, and which not to. As with my first three novels, there were people I wanted to protect, or at least not insult. I had a fierce, almost maternal instinct to protect the real girl. It drove me to rewrite, scrap certain elements, go back and disguise other things. I wrote characters as different from the real ones (easy, having never met the father and daughter) in as many ways as I could. The sergeant morphed into a Hispanic single mom cop who was not in charge at all, and had even more hurdles to face in doing what she thought was right for the father and daughter. Even the city of Portland became a fictional city to obfuscate the routes they took, and the implied location of their encampment.

In the end, it was one of the most satisfying writing experiences I’ve had, and people like the book. I like the details and drama I infused, using imagination to create a media gone wild (well, that doesn’t take too much imagination) and an underground movement that helps those in need.

At readings, though, I’m often asked a question that haunts me:

What if the real girl reads the book?

I have no answer for that question, only a twist in my chest, and hope that she will understand my need to write this story.

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