When fact-based works can’t be tidily tied up in a nonfiction box

When I first formed my theories concerning the nonfiction novel, many people with whom I discussed the matter were unsympathetic. They felt that what I proposed, a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual, was little more than a literary solution for fatigued novelists suffering from “failure of imagination.” Personally, I felt that this attitude represented a “failure of imagination” on their part.

Truman Capote in an interview conducted by George Plimpton

January 16, 1966, The New York Times

Whether accurate or not, Truman Capote claimed that in writing In Cold Blood he invented a new category of writing. A panel at Gemini Ink’s Writers Conference this weekend grappled with their own difficulties in fitting into traditional nonfiction labels and wrestling with how publishers promote them.

the train to crystal cityJan Jarboe, author of The Train to Crystal City, is meticulous about her facts, so much so she even hired a fact-checker out of her own pocket to ensure certain details were correct before her recent New York Times Bestseller (on the nonfiction list) was published. Although the book is true, she feels it blurs the traditional lines for nonfiction because she was determined not to break the flow of the narrative or drive herself crazy by “annotating every damn detail.”

Jarboe’s strict adherence to facts is part of her D.N.A. as a writer, having spent years contributing to Texas Monthly, which is noted for its team of fact-checkers. The panel moderator, John Phillip Santos, referenced John McPhee’s 2009 New Yorker article on that magazine’s fact-checkers, “Checkpoints,” chronicling the tenacity required both to perform the task and to work with the taskmasters.

berlow the lineAuthor J.R. Helton plays more loosely, valuing the format of a nonfiction novel for “not worrying about whether you jump back and forth in time.” His works are subjective, a telling of events as he recalls them. He says he was brutally honest about some of the film industry people featured in Below the Line; so much so that Sarah Hepola writes in The Austin Chronicle that “the tell-all book might more accurately be called Below the Belt.” But, in Drugs, Helton says he purposefully changed names and places to prevent himself from getting killed by some of the dangerous characters he encountered during his past drug days. While he feels The Jugheads accurately related his side of the story of his family life when he was growing up in East Texas, his publisher categorized it as “fictionalized memoir.”

manana means heavenTim Z. Hernandez categorized himself as a poet when he was assigned the huge San Joaquin Valley as his territory for mining oral histories for California Stories. While he first considered the assignment “work,” the one-on-one interviews altered his writing and made him realize “you don’t have to leave to look for good stories.”

His interest in oral history led Hernandez to knock on the door of Bea Franco, the real-life never-before-interviewed “Mexican girl” Jack Kerouac wrote about in On the Road. Convincing her to entrust him to tell the story of her life, Hernandez translated his oral history interviews with her in Manana Means Heaven.

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Hector Tobar observed:

Hernandez combines his skills as a poet and some dogged research to imagine and re-create the couple’s brief relationship with intimate and engrossing detail. The book begins and ends with a description of Hernandez’s real-life interview with Franco, and it’s clear the novel has benefited from Franco’s own account of her life as a farmworker and young mother.

Hernandez says he based his narrative on his recordings of Franco’s story but found some pieces missing. In order to ensure his efforts at filling in the gaps rang true, he read them aloud to his elderly subject. He knew he was on target when she would nod her approval saying, “That’s not how I lived it, but that’s how I remembered it.” The publisher marketed the book as “historical fiction.” Hernandez’s upcoming book that includes dialogue is being labeled a “documentary novel.”

And did The New Yorker’s famous fact-checking survive the test of time for Capote’s In Cold Blood? In Slate, Ben Yagoda wrote of finding the original notes made by the fact-checker assigned the laborious chore:

Almost from the start, skeptics challenged the accuracy of In Cold Blood. One early revelation (acknowledged by Capote before his death in 1984) was that the last scene in the book, a graveyard conversation between a detective and the murdered girl’s best friend, was pure invention. I myself made a small contribution to the counter-narrative. While doing research for my 2000 book, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, I found “In Cold Blood” galley proofs in the magazine’s archives. Next to a passage describing the actions of someone who was alone, and who was later killed in the “multiple murder,” New Yorker editor William Shawn had scrawled, in pencil, “How know?” There was in fact no way to know, but the passage stayed.

So who knows? In a later session of the Writers Conference led by Claiborne Smith, editor-in-chief of Kirkus Reviews and literary director of the San Antonio Book Festival, Jarboe observed, “Nonfiction is often more unbelievable than fiction.”

 signed: a writer drowning in a swamp of footnotes

Struggling and longing to be ‘fictionalized’

deer

 

So can identify with the whining of the main character in “How Shall I Know You,” a short story in Hilary Mantel‘s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

The woman is an author who has been “struggling with a biography” for several years.

As a biographer I was more than usually inefficient in untangling my subject’s accursed genealogy. I mixed up Aunt Virginie with the one who married the Mexican, and spent a whole hour with a churning stomach, thinking that all my dates were wrong and believing that my whole Chapter Two would have to be reworked.

Why, I can out-whine her any day. I have a whole cemetery I’m trying to untangle, and I’m sure I’m at least three years into it. And it is filled with a multitude of Smiths and Joneses and Cokers, many of whom inconsiderately passed down the same first names over and over. The Joneses prove particularly difficult, as they originate from two completely unrelated lines, or unrelated for quite a while before the Texas Revolution and not again until some time later.

And she only spent “a whole hour” thinking everything was awry? That’s nothing.

The author in the short story finds writing the truth, when it has to be uncovered, difficult.

I seemed to be pining for those three short early novels, and their brittle personnel. I felt a wish to be fictionalized.

Making up things does seem much easier than digging up facts long-buried. Often I want to just linger in the tub imagining different lives among all of those Coker descendants. The writer in “How Shall I Know You” does just that. She starts typing up exciting invented versions of the lives of Aunt Virginie and the Mexican, completely avoiding the facts associated with the original subject of the biography.

But, unfortunately, you just can’t make this stuff up.

And, I know I don’t need to.

The Coker Cemetery is fertile with true tales that should be passed on to the descendants of the residents resting there.

I’ve made it through the Texas Revolution, the arrival of German and Hungarian settlers and the Civil War. I’m getting there. Slowly.

Each nugget I discover is rewarding. In addition to the everyday stories of hardworking dairy farmers, there is a surprising bit of murder and mayhem to entertain me.

All I need is patience. And an extremely large dose of it.

the-assassination-of-margaret-thatcherWait a minute. Wolf Hall. Bring Up the Bodies.

The author of the author in the short story is the ultimate award-winning, best-selling researcher.

All whining privileges on my part are hereby revoked.

Library Foundation flapping red cape for the bullish on books

"Toro Obscuro," Joel Salcido, poster artist for San Antonio Book Festival 2013,

“Toro Obscuro,” Joel Salcido, poster artist for San Antonio Book Festival 2013, http://www.joelsalcidogallery.com/

A full day of readings by recently published Texas authors is on the horizon for Saturday, April 13. No need to steel yourself for a drive up I-35 because the San Antonio Public Library Foundation is bringing a fresh edition of the Texas Book Festival here to the Central Library and the Southwest School of Art for seven hours of readings, discussions and signings.

logoThe preliminary schedule is so packed I assembled links to resolve (or attempt to resolve) conflicting pulls among the readings in advance. Definitely check the official website for updates before heading downtown:

All Day

  • Book Sales
  • Coloring Station, Painting Bookmarks; H-E-B Children’s Area
  • Latino Leadership for the Library En Nuestras Palabras: My Story Van, Stories on the Porch, Create A Story, Meet the Story Tellers, Stories are Milagros for the Future; Central Library Plaza Walk

10 a.m.

10:45 a.m.

  • Elaine Scott (Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert); Children’s Area, Central Library
  • Storytelling with Sarah Loden; H-E-B Children’s Area

going-clear-cover11 a.m.

11:15 a.m.

  • Celebrating Small-Town Texas Souls with Liza Palmer and Lynda Rutledge; Moderator, Josie Seeligson; Southwest School of Art, Ursuline Campus

11:30 a.m.

SweetOnTexasNoon

12:15 p.m.

12:30 p.m.

  • A Sense of Birthplace: Investigating the Past: Beatriz de la Garza and Sarah Cortez; Moderator, Yvette Benavides; Southwest School of Art, Navarro Campus

oleander12:45 p.m.

1 p.m.

  • Sandra Cisneros performs from Have You Seen Marie?; Moderator, John Phillip Santos; Central Library

I always tell people that I became a writer not because I went to school but because my mother took me to the library.

Sandra Cisneros

job-cover1:45 p.m.

2 p.m.

2:15 p.m.

alicia2:30 p.m.

2:45 p.m.

  • At War Over the Environment: Two Experts on the Politics of Parks and the Natural World with George Bristol and Char Miller; Moderator, Weir Labatt; Southwest School of Art, Navarro Campus

3 p.m.

  • Esmeralda Santiago on Conquistadora; Moderator, José Rubén De León, Central Library
  • For readers of Young Adult fiction: Summer of the Mariposas with Guadalupe Garcia McCall; Moderator, Yvette Benavides; Southwest School of Art, Navarro Campus
  • Thinking caps and creativity crowns; H-E-B Children’s Area

3:15 p.m.

4 p.m.

4:15 p.m.

site-map

An incredible agenda for a first-time event (May there be many more).

Of course you will need breaks, so there will be children’s activities and music throughout the day.

And nourishing your mind makes you hungry, so some of San Antonio’s favorite food trucks will be parked nearby for refueling.

Hmm, this is San Antonio. Wonder where the beer stand is….

cafeNote to Austinites: Your turn to hit I-35.

Note to Self: Never get so excited about something you decide to post the whole schedule – with custom links – again.

And thanks to the Mister Barista for that caffe corretto blast.

April 12, 2013, Update:

Just received the schedule for the Latino Leadership for the Library area just outside the Central Library, and it adds another slew of author appearances.

latino-leadership2

latino-leadership