It was the proverbial good news bad news situation. The extremely good news – head-spinning, actually – involved a book and a bidding war – which had entered the high seven-figures with no end in sight – between two of the most esteemed editors at two of the most prestigious publishing houses in New York City. The extremely bad news – equally mind-boggling: It wasn’t my book they were fighting over.
When the relative of a friend of a former-distant-relative-in-law and writer of the above-mentioned book – a memoir – emailed me (right out of the blue) about the “great news” and asked if she could stay with me for three days while negotiating her “big book deal” – well, I said sure. She arrived two days later. Each morning I watched from my window as a stretch limo waited downstairs, ready to shuttle her back and forth between negotiations. And again, I watched in the evening, as another limo took her from one place to another where she was wooed, wined, and dined. By the third day she had made her decision, signed a contract, gotten a check in the high six-figures, bought me a bottle of wine, and headed back home. For her it was a dream come true: For me, a struggling writer, it was a nightmare. Or was it?
For years a former agent of mine – who happened to represent one of the country’s most commercially successful memoirists – had been after me to write mine. At the time, editors and, it seemed, the reading public, were part of the teeming horde that clamored for “reality anything.” Ergo, there was a deluge of memoirs about Everything: Survivors of dysfunctional childhood. Survivors of dysfunctional adulthood. Survivors of incest and abuse. Survivors of nature. Survivors of food addiction. Survivors of drug addiction. Survivors of any and all type of trauma. You name it, someone survived it – and wrote about it. Given these market conditions, my agent’s suggestion wasn’t unreasonable. But, I am a writer of fiction and I had no intention of changing course.
Yet, rooming for three days with a real life “Survivor-Of-A-Dysfunctional-Childhood” gave me pause. After hearing her story I started to think, ‘Hey, what about me? My story is much more tragic than hers! In fact, it’s probably more tragic than all of the other memoirists put together!’ Okay, maybe this one had survived a severe knuckle-rapping from Sister Mary, or that one was the sole survivor of a plane crash at the tippy-top of Mount Everest, or this former Hollywood starlet had survived the pressure to be anorexic by becoming an unemployed size 16. But their stories couldn’t compare to mine. I mean, on the Tragic-O-Meter, I was off the scale. Or was I?
Truth is a Tricky Thing
Lately we’ve seen that this is particularly so for memoirists. Just ask Oprah. The most high-profile Oprah-endorsed fiction parading as memoir was James Frey’s best-seller, “A Million Little Pieces.” Just last month Oprah was again embarrassed when the memoir, “Angel at the Fence,” by Herman Rosenblat was revealed to be bogus. Then there was the famous case of “Running with Scissors” the Augusten Burroughs memoir which spent more than two years on the New York Times best-seller list and was made into a Hollywood movie. The author and the book’s publisher were sued for $2 million in damages for defamation, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress by the family that Burroughs wrote about. The family charged that, among other things, “. . . the author, with the full complicity of the publisher, literally has fabricated events that never happened and manufactured conversations that never occurred.” The case was eventually settled. In addition to financial recompense to the family, the publisher agreed to call the work a “book” instead of a “memoir.”
Still, a rational person could conclude that memoirists would not consciously present and promote their work as non-fiction – especially on National TV – unless they actually believed it was non-fiction. So, where does that leave us? With the uncomfortable fact that the truth lies in the mind of the beholder, and that this truth can be over-dramatized, aggrandized, and otherwise turned on its head without bad intention. And, in the end, when it comes to the memoirist – the Survivor-Of-Some-Kind-Of-Dysfunction-Or-Another – the truth may be as much fiction as fiction!
Given all of the above, I decided I couldn’t take a chance. I mean, maybe my story wasn’t the most tragic of all! Maybe the truth I’d been telling myself wasn’t exactly the truth. And maybe if I wrote my memoir I’d end up on Oprah with egg on my face! No. I couldn’t do that Oprah – not again!
In the end, I decided to stick to my non-autobiographical imagination. I like the freedom and the challenge of fiction writing. I like escaping myself. I find it far more interesting to write about others … to create characters whose truths can only be questioned and answered by one person: Me.
About the Author
Bonnie Kozek’s debut novel, Threshold was published 2008. Her books, Just Before the Dawn and One Wrong Move, will be published in 2009. Kozek has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. Learn more about her work at: http://www.bonniekozek.com