The current controversy over the Oprah Book Club pick, AMERICAN DIRT, has made me think about truth or fiction. Specifically, how do we as writers approach material that is either historical or societal based?
We need to do our due diligence and do research. Novelists dig into oral histories and non-fiction books, but do we need to do more? We will need to look at newspaper articles and government records in the archives? Do we need to do our own original interviews?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I have read novels about the Japanese American World War II incarceration experience. Some, I feel, hold so close to nonfiction accounts that the narrative is stunted. I’m not saying that these writers should entirely fabricate watershed events, but the novelist’s work lies in the gaps between history and real accounts. We need to find the places and emotions not explored in nonfiction.
In my own practice, I try to do original research and interviews for nonfiction projects first. It’s important for me to have real people’s names and stories in print. It’s their stories, after all. After I do this work, I feel more freedom to fictionalize a certain community’s situation. I will know the holes, what hasn’t been explored and may not ever be unearthed in nonfiction.