Deb Eleanor on Autobiographies

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor BrownI’ve been to a lot of author readings, and without fail, someone will ask some form of this question: “Is your book autobiographical?”

I’m not sure why people tend to assume that all fiction is autobiographical, but on the other hand, I think it often is, at least to some extent. Writers write about things that interest them, and many of us are inspired by what we see in our own lives.

When people ask me if The Weird Sisters is about my life, my answer is typically, “More than I intended, and less than you think.” The three sisters’ personalities are based on parts of me, and some of the plot is concerned with things I saw happen to friends. The themes are absolutely things I was trying to figure out myself: birth order, adulthood, family communication.

But The Weird Sisters is fiction.  It’s just filtered through my particular way of seeing the world, so in that way it is autobiographical.

Do you expect that fiction is about writer’s lives? Where’s the line to you between fiction and autobiography?

28 Replies to “Deb Eleanor on Autobiographies”

  1. Nope! I love when a fiction writer is nothing like his or her fiction. In fact, despite wanting to know every reader personally, I kind of like the “olden days” when writers were mysterious and never seen and simply a name on the cover of a book. Writing is as much showmanship and platform and reaching out to readers today as writing. I’m completely guilty of it myself. Kind of weird…. sister.


    1. I’m reading a book about the publication of Gone With the Wind, and how much Margaret Mitchell hated the interest in her that stemmed from the book’s success. It is interesting how the line can be blurred between author and work can be blurred even further by all the sharing we do!

  2. Hmmm. I am not a short twenty-something who can alter her aura to look like anyone she touches. I do, however, have a tendency to want to fix people’s lives, so I guess there’s maybe a bit of me in my books. 😉

    1. I love that! After all, there’s a reason we choose to write about what we do. Even fantasy/paranormal/sci fi writers aren’t exempt!

  3. I suspect there are almost always autobiographical elements but that if you try to guess which ones you usually guess wrong. Still, when writing scenes of a more, ahem, intimate nature, I always remember reading a book by a former teacher that had a graphic sex scene in it and thinking: Too much information!!! And not just about the characters 🙂

    1. Excellent point – we’d never guess right!

      I was teaching when I started writing TWS, and was *very* conscious of how it would be received by my students. Of course, that was so long ago those students are all grown up now, but I definitely had an internal appropriate-ness-meter going.

  4. I constantly get that question about my forthcoming novel, and I always sort of wince when I hear it. It’s so hard to explain to non-writers that although my book (which is set at a kids’ summer camp) draws heavily on my own experiences as a “staff brat” growing up, the characters themselves, although they may have factual parallels with me or with people I knew, take on a life of their own in the writing.

    But of course I, too, sometimes fall into the trap of wondering how much in a novel or story is “true.” Like Kim, I agree that sometimes it’s better to know nothing about the writer or her/his life, so one isn’t tempted to draw parallels.

    1. That is for sure – even if I started out trying to write something totally autobiographical, my characters would up and take over, as they always do.

      Maybe it’s one of those things where we know the facts intellectually, but our imaginations take over.

      So fun to see you here – thanks for stopping by!

  5. As an author, I think Eleanor Brown hits the nail on the head with her answer. We never want it to be autobiographical, but usually some element of our stories are… it’s just not the piece that everyone thinks it is! And as an author, I think you have to struggle to write your story and not worry about what people will assume is true or not true. You just have to be true to the story you’re trying to tell and the characters you’re exploring. Which is, of course, easier said than done!

    1. Lise Saffran just said the same thing – it’s never the part people would think!

      I agree – we can’t control anything about how other people view our work. We can’t control if they like it or not, and we can’t control what they see in it. You just have to write the story and let it go as it must!

      1. For me, one of the hardest parts was getting over the “what will my parents think” piece of it. Will they think something I’ve written is true and be shocked/embarrassed/worried about me? Sad, but true…

  6. Hi Eleanor, so glad you twittered this link!
    I do often wonder how much of a writer’s experience and life is in their novels. Some more than others. I know when we met, I told you I had two sisters, that love triangle has many ups and downs, and you admitted you too were the youngest of 3 girls.
    When I consider what I would write about, much of it is autobiographical, but since I don’t really want to dig up that can of worms, I’d have to change a lot!.
    Great insight and food for thought on this topic.

    1. Hi Anita! Thanks for coming by!

      I know I wouldn’t have been so interested in writing a story about birth order if I didn’t come from a family that lined up so neatly with it, but what came out wasn’t my family at all. I think the key is figuring out the issue you’re trying to resolve rather than how to “hide” the details.

      And the fact is, the characters will take over anyway!

    2. Anita — I think the key is to hide the truth! You use the autobiographical part perhaps as your core story and change all the relevant details… or you use the autobiographical part as small details in a story that doesn’t relate to your real life. But DISGUISING the truth is definitely the key to making it work! At least, it is for me!

      1. Thanks Robin, I just saw your reply.
        When “they” say write about what you know I think it sounds easy, but again, I think hiding the truth in enough other details is critical. I don’t think I could hide a book/short story from my family, and I know I wouldn’t want them to really see how I’d portray our family…ha ha!!!

  7. I always like to think that fiction is truth let out to play. I usually get so wrapped up in a story as I read that I rarely wonder what’s real and what’s not.

    I’d hope that people would think the same about my writing! But I’m sure people closest to me will recognize certain traits and memories that I gave to my characters. I hope they’ll also be able to see that I fictionalized them.

    Eleanor, I love your answer: “More than I intended, and less than you think.” That’s the perfect way of describing it.

    1. Definitely the people close to you are going to have the hardest time separating fiction from reality. I’ve had people I know say things like, “I couldn’t figure out which character was who in your family!” That’s a compliment, actually, since they’re not the people in my family!

      But you raise a good point – the more involving the story, the less you have time to think about what’s based in reality and what’s pure imagination!

  8. I was under the illusion that I was in no way writing an autobiography when I wrote my first book. After all, my protagonist was male and I am a woman. In hindsight, I realize the depth is all me, my life experience, my viewpoint, my pain and my joy. It is the ribbon of my core self that runs the show. As for family members, none were deliberately included, but some of the more colorful personalities were used to create a composite.

    1. You totally nailed it – we’re always writing ourselves, even when the particulars couldn’t be any more different. That doesn’t mean it’s autobiographical, but it means that we’re able to access our own humanity when we’re writing. So interesting!

    1. I think I’d underestimated that last part before TWS was published – I forget how much our own experiences influence what we read!

      Hee – we were leaving comments on each other’s blogs at the same time. We are psychically linked!

  9. It’s funny — I’m always fascinated by the real life parallels between writers and their characters — even actors and their characters. I was even one of the insane people who loved the Blaine/Kurt romance on Glee so much that I immediately HAD to hop online and find out of Darren Criss was gay, so maybe there’d be a chance for them in real life (I know, I’m a total dork). Did it matter? Did it have any bearing on what I loved about the show? Do I love the relationship any less knowing it’s purely fiction? NO! But I had to find out.

    At the same time, when a non-memoirist writes from something too close to their real life experience, the results are often self-indulgent and flat. I include my own early writing in that criticism, and I think it comes from the fact that if you’re just relating things that “really happened,” you’re not diving into the deeper truth of the “characters” involved. After all, it really happened! Isn’t that enough?

    It’s not enough. Great fiction may start from a germ of real life experience, and real life (or real-life-inspired) moments may play a part in the story… but for the book to truly work, the plot and characters need to have a fully fleshed out life of their own, quite apart from their author’s.

    1. You just managed to put into words something I’ve often wondered about – why autobiography disguised as fiction does seem so flat. It’s also the source of many a critique group argument: “This doesn’t seem realistic.” “But it actually happened!” “Yeah, well, rewrite it.” 🙂

      How much did you scream when they finally kissed? ME TOO.

  10. I think this says it all – “It’s just filtered through my particular way of seeing the world…” Writers give readers their version of the truth, their truth, however they see fit to tell it. We may use werewolves or vampires or Shakespeare or teenagers or Twitter but our truth gets told. 🙂

    1. Definitely. I’m guessing fantasy writers get the question less often, which is ironic, since everyone’s writing comes from their heart and mind.

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