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

Prodigious Poster in Pursuit of Parsimony

Reflecting on her four years of blogging, author C.M. Mayo writes:    

Blogging is whatever you want it to be.  And that morphs.  I don’t worry about this so much as I once did.  I just blog.   

C.M. Mayo’s blog led my daughter and me to the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference, which we now hope to make an annual pilgrimage.  But the conference also led me to wallow in the bog of blogging.      

A simple posting of very few words about a proposed product for preventing postmen from getting lost via Google map destination envelopes is highly appealing.


  I have been blogging eight weeks since San Miguel, and find myself inappropriately writing feature-length stories – a rant about John Edge’s claim that Austin had the best breakfast tacos in the U.S. turned into a more than a thousand-word restaurant review – obviously unsuitable for the attention span of anyone surfing the web.   I remain verbose, even though my favorite post of mine let the photo tell all and I am drawn to quick-read postings, such as Swiss Miss’ goggle map envelopes I discovered through a Mayo post.     

My blog also has a tendency to let politics slip in – Texas produces such rich fodder for ridicule – and I have even fired volleys at the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.  Unwise for a freelance writer trying to make a living in Texas.  Biting one’s tongue while blogging is as difficult as doing so at well-lubricated cocktail parties.  Author Margaret Atwood describes this problem on the New York Review of Books Blog:       

Oops! I shouldn’t have said that. Which is typical of “social media”: you’re always saying things you shouldn’t have said.  But it’s like the days of Hammurabi, and those of the patriarch Isaac in the book of Genesis, come to think of it: once decrees and blessings have made it out of the mouth—or, now, in the 21st century, out of the ends of the fingers and past the Send button—you can’t take them back.    

I fear blogging is a distraction diverting me from more serious writing projects.  Mayo dismisses this as not problematic (but she, of course, has several successful books under her belt):      

I’m finding it increasingly less interesting to even think about querying newspapers and magazines.  I’ve written for the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Mexico, Inside Mexico, and the like, and until I started my blog, I assumed I would continue to do so.  But I prefer to put my effort into writing books (long form) and blogging (short form).  Maybe I’ll rethink this.  Sometime.     

As Atwood began to build her website in 2009, her publishers were nervous:     

“That sounds wonderful, Margaret,” they said, with the queasy encouragement shown by those on the shore waving goodbye to someone who’s about to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel.   

Yet Atwood has embraced fully the technological advances affecting how writers communicate.   (I only wish while in San Antonio as part of Gemini Ink Autograph Series, she had convinced her friend, Colleen Grissom, to start a blog.  Reading things Colleen “shouldn’t have said” would be so entertaining.)   At the Texas Book Festival in the fall of 2009, Atwood spoke extensively of her progress from blogging to tweeting.  She regards her followers as though they are “33,000 precocious grandchildren.”     

On the subject of followers, Mayo shared one of her poetic tweets – “a tweet can be a form of poetry (twiku) or fiction (twiction)” – in “Twitter Is:”   

@c_m_mayo:  Following no one, having no followers, she was like the woman in the back closet, grumbling at the blankets, existing on mothballed air     

There’s no period at the end of that sentence because I’d used up my allotment of characters. Fster than a wlnut cn roll dwn t roof of a hen house, were gng 2 see t nd of cvlizatn   

 One of Mayo’s tweeters defined tweeting as:    

@lisaborders:    Twitter is a message in a bottle that sometimes gets answered  

If novelists such as Atwood and Mayo can confine their thoughts to 140 characters, surely there is hope for me to learn to curb my blogging output before my few followers dwindle to none.  Then again, here I am with a 700-word entry about the critical need for brevity in blogging.  

As one “grandchild” of Margaret Atwood tweeted:  “I love it when old ladies blog.” 

Note Added on April 28The Daily Beast‘s “Can the Author Survive the Internet?” 

James Wood….  said he finds looking through readers’ comments on blogs to be akin to a descent into Hades.  He added that his friend Andrew Sullivan is buckling under the strain of writing three hundred blog posts per week, which has interfered with his ability to concentrate on anything longer than a few paragraphs. 

I like readers’ comments (of course, mine are rather limited). 

Note added on May 3Margaret Atwood’s speech upon her acceptance of the American PEN Award. 

Note added on July 13:  C.M. Mayo now has a second blog for those seriously researching the “French Intervention” in Mexico and also provides podcasts online of some of her presentations on both her writing and writing in general. 

Note Added on September 5:  Here I am a few months later managing facebook fan pages, responding to yelpers and, yes, even tweeting for a restaurant client.

Barbara Ras’ ‘Elephant’ in ‘New Yorker’

Barbara Ras, director of Trinity University Press, has one of her poems featured in the March 15 issue of The New Yorker:

Washing the Elephant

by Barbara Ras, March 15, 2010

Isn’t it always the heart that wants to wash
the elephant, begging the body to do it
with soap and water, a ladder, hands,
in tree shade big enough for the vast savannas
of your sadness, the strangler fig of your guilt,
the cratered full moon’s light fuelling
the windy spooling memory of elephant?

What if Father Quinn had said, “Of course you’ll recognize
your parents in Heaven,” instead of
“Being one with God will make your mother and father
pointless.” That was back when I was young enough
to love them absolutely though still fear for their place
in Heaven, imagining their souls like sponges full
of something resembling street water after rain.

Still my mother sent me every Saturday to confess,
to wring the sins out of my small baffled soul, and I made up lies
about lying, disobeying, chewing gum in church, to offer them
as carefully as I handed over the knotted handkerchief of coins
to the grocer when my mother sent me for a loaf of Wonder,
Land of Lakes, and two Camels.

If guilt is the damage of childhood, then eros is the fall of adolescence.
Or the fall begins there, and never ends, desire after desire parading
through a lifetime like the Ringling Brothers elephants
made to walk through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel
and down Thirty-fourth Street to the Garden.
So much of our desire like their bulky, shadowy walking
after midnight, exiled from the wild and destined
for a circus with its tawdry gaudiness, its unspoken pathos.

It takes more than half a century to figure out who they were,
the few real loves-of-your-life, and how much of the rest—
the mad breaking-heart stickiness—falls away, slowly,
unnoticed, the way you lose your taste for things
like popsicles unthinkingly.
And though dailiness may have no place
for the ones who have etched themselves in the laugh lines
and frown lines on the face that’s harder and harder
to claim as your own, often one love-of-your-life
will appear in a dream, arriving
with the weight and certitude of an elephant,
and it’s always the heart that wants to go out and wash
the huge mysteriousness of what they meant, those memories
that have only memories to feed them, and only you to keep them clean.

Barbara, who will publish a collection of poems, The Last Skin, later this month, also had a poem appear in The New Yorker in 2006.  She will be one of the more than 20 writers in the spotlight for Wordworkers, an exhibit opening at Bihl Haus Arts from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Friday, March 19.   During the opening, poets photographed by Melanie Rush Davis “will scrawl their poetry on gallery walls.” 

Other featured writers include Carmen Tafolla, Marian Haddad, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sandra Cisneros, Nan Cuba, Rosemary Catacalos, Jenny Browne, John Phillip Santos and Bryce Milligan.  As the exhibition at Bihl Haus continues, there will be a reading and small press book fair from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, and a poetry reading by Jim LaVilla-Havelin from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 8.  Bihl Haus Arts is located at 2803 Fredericksburg Road.

Barbara’s “Washing the Elephant” brought forth memories of the weekly visits to the confessional that forced me, as well, to make up imaginary sins to tell the rigid Father Habit at Star of the Sea.

Note Added on May 9Review of “Washing the Elephant” and Ras’ The Last Skin

Update on November 5:  Barbara Ras will discuss The Last Skin at The Twig Book Shop at Pearl Brewery from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, November 14.

Update on September 11, 2012: Gemini Ink is honoring Barbara Ras at its 15th Annual Inkstravaganza at Pearl on Thursday, September 27, and one should never miss an opportunity to hear the utterances emitted by Coleen Grissom.