“The story has a shape. and that comes first, and then the story and its shape need substance and nourishment from the haunting past, clear memories or incidents suddenly remembered or invented, erased or enriched. . . . And if I am lucky what comes into shape will, despite all the fragility and all the unease. seem more real and more true, be more affecting and enduring, than the news today, or the facts of the case. . .” Colm Toibin, “What Is Real Is Imagined” (The New York Times (July 15, 2012)
My novella, Joan and Bella, the latest in my trilogy, Extraordinary Loves, was inspired by a photograph. In the photograph, my sister, Susan, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is holding hands with another woman in the care facility where they both live. My sister’s smile, mysterious and triumphant, fascinates me. I had thought her life was over when her memory faded. But the smile says it was not. It says she lives in a world real to her that I can never enter.
But Joan and Bella, an attempt in words to enter that world where words have been lost but something remains, is not about my sister, but Joan, a fictional woman, who is, like Susan, afflicted with Alzheimer’s. It is also about how the linked pasts of those who love Joan affect their present relationships with her and each other.
My sister does not make fabric art. My character Joan does. Why? Because through art, which is wordless, she can express herself, and I wanted her to be able to do that. The sinister pieces of art Joan creates were inspired by the much sweeter fabric landscapes I once saw at a friend’s house. My decision to make Joan’s sister Francie a paleontologist came from an incident that happened to me at least ten years ago: A professor who had taken his class, certainly far from his first, for a field trip to bluffs at the beach, turned to me, a stranger, not in his class, and said, “This fossil is forty-million years old!” with a wonder I have not forgotten to this day. And I wanted Francie to be someone with the imagination to be fascinated for a lifetime by something as hard to grasp as forty-eight million years. Mrs. Cruz, the manager of The Home, where Joan and Bella live, shows a non-sentimental compassion reminiscent of that of my cousin Tim, who runs a retirement home in Massachusetts.
And my sister and I are not twins and never went to a prom together, though I wish we had.
My other recently published piece of fiction, A Provençal Mystery, is also somewhat based on real life: the year I spent in France researching my dissertation like the protagonist, Dory Ryan. Like her, I did take my dog with me. However, my dog, Puppy, was female. Dory’s dog, Foxy, is male. Why? Because it made the use of pronouns easier. (Sometimes transformations from life to fiction are not so profound.) I didn’t know any nuns when I was in Avignon, not did I come upon a nun’s diary (it’s quite possible none exist), but the subject of my dissertation was a religious order whose mission it was to reform fallen women. Dory’s Avignon apartment is modeled on my English friend Jon Skinner’s apartment there; I lived in a motel on an island, which, it turned out, was a place where Avignon businessmen and their mistresses came for nooners. I didn’t experience any murders while working in the Avignon archives, though Dory, of course, does. Rachel Marchand is based on my friend Sharon Rawley, who was not a historian at all. So why did Sharon become Rachel? It has something to do with her hair, which was very silky, her sharp intelligence, and her straight-on view of life. I needed a character who would complement and contrast with Dory. But of course Rachel is not wholly Sharon, but a chimerical mix of real and imagined.
Though Dory Ryan and I have things in common (concern about weight, for instance), I can see in her Vikki Bynum, my friend in graduate school, who was then studying unruly women in the American South of the 1800s. Vikki once said, as we were drinking wine on a Friday afternoon, that she felt great obligation to the women she was writing about to tell the stories true. I never forgot that, and I give Dory that same sensibility, which I greatly admire and have tried to emulate.
It feels wicked to shape reality into fiction, but it’s too intoxicating to resist.