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

Postcard from Salamanca, Spain: Books spoiling Plaza Mayor?

Can’t believe it. Never ever thought I would do it. Complain about a book festival. Me?

The San Antonio Book Festival is my favorite event at home. But….

Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is reputedly the must stunning plaza in Spain.

And, as such, it is overrun with tourists. People will wait in line a half-hour for ice cream.

We spent a week in Salamanca, and the entire time the plaza was filled with inartistic booths for a book festival.

During much of the daytime on weekdays, they were shuttered. Simply blocking the view. People willing to sit on the plaza were confronted with their almost trailer-court appearance.

But, when the Book Fair booths were open, things did not improve. Pre-fab booths, lacking in any customized personality, did not address the surrounding square. They faced only inward, addressing each other. Treating the Plaza Mayor as though it were a shabby backyard alley.

For people ringing the square, they faced just plain walls.

Definitely the wrong place for the Book Fair.

The one in Lisbon a year ago had personality.

The same type of cubicle setups followed us from Salamanca to Madrid, but parked in a linear park capable of accommodating the intrusion.

Hope the festival in Salamanca rethinks its plaza invasion. Or at least opens booths outward so the book vendors and browsers interact with and contribute to the liveliness of the spectacular surrounding plaza.

 

Postcard from Portugal: Lessons for San Antonio?

Whenever you travel, you always come across things you’d love to see at home. These are listed randomly, not ranked. Click on the photos to see larger images or the highlighted links if you would like to see additional related photos.

  1. tables under giant rubber trees at Esplanada Cafe

    sandwiches served under giant rubber trees at Esplanada Cafe

    Huge multi-grain sandwiches oozing with melted cheese served under towering rubber trees in a park. This was the easiest of things to adapt from Portugal. Panini(tost)-maker purchased. How did I live without one? It grills veggie burgers, Greek cheese, eggplant, zucchini, naan bread, pineapple, French toast. Anything and everything.

  2. DSCN0748Robert H. H. Hugman designed the River Walk  in San Antonio with varying designs of sidewalks underfoot, but Portugal takes such artistry a giant step farther, and the results are striking. Every step you take should be memorable. Maybe we need a non-slick surface, though. But, it all goes back to something we haven’t quite embraced in Texas. Park the car. A city should be walked to be appreciated.
  3. DSCN0692Statues should be statuesque, or not at all. Poor Henry B. by the Convention Center, wherever he ends up relocated, is rendered too petite. He seems less than life-size. Statues should be awe-inspiring (The exception: Keep oyster-shelly Gompers small and hidden under overgrown trees.).
  4. DSCN1349DSCN1350Festival beer booths do not have to be hideous. Lisbon utilizes these little self-contained booths with several different designs for their special events. Some have homey images, such as a cat in a window or a friendly dog at the door.
  5. DSCN1163Tiles. We have the tradition here. Wonderful tiles from Ethel Harris’ San Jose Pottery. Or those colorful tiles Marion Koogler McNay installed on the risers of her patio stairs. Susan Toomey Frost donated a San Jose tile mural for the Museum Reach of the river to add to the original ones along the downtown river bend, and there are the incredible ones at Alamo Stadium. But we need more. They are such an enduring form of art.
  6. DSCN1200Promotional banners and advertising for festivals do not all have to be identical. Maintaining integrity of logos is one thing, but succumbing to boring repetition renders the message meaningless. Love the way Lisbon engages several artists each year to interpret their marketing materials for its month-long festival in honor of Saint Anthony.
  7. Sardines are a good thing. When they are fresh. Grilled street-side. Just before we left for Portugal, Central Market had a few laid out for the media preview of their Ciao Italia. Then we left, and dove into the land where they were in abundance. We’d like them here, please.
  8. DSCN1214DSCN1216Love our San Antonio Book Festival. But how in the world does Lisbon keep Feira Livro up and running for two weeks? Self-contained booths that can be locked up securely each night help. The sheer number of booths and books made me feel downright illiterate, particularly since the books were in Portuguese.
  9. DSCN0582Inner-city parks are filled with activities on a rotating basis. Farmers’ markets. Regional gourmet food festivals with vendors and tastings. Mini-book fairs. A once-a-month antique fair that would be great some place like Travis Park.
  10. DSCN1316The San Antonio Missions are crying out for intimate, customized tuk-tuk tours crisscrossing the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. The tuk tuks of Lisbon had different designs on the outside. My favorite one, not pictured, was covered with a skin of images of some of Portugal’s distinctive blue tiles.
  11. DSCN1229We now have food trucks, but what about little portable craft beer carts, perfect for sampling new beers on tap in park-like settings. This cart was parked outside the botanical garden. We also encountered wine trucks for sampling Portuguese wine, complete with bar stools for sipping at the wine truck counter. Oh how I would love it if Texas wines were as inexpensive as Portuguese.
  12. DSCN1160Portugal seems to have more than its fair share of parts of saints enshrined in reliquaries. I always thought American Catholics were too squeamish to even want to know how far one saint could be spread, but I was wrong. We just don’t have many saints and parts to fight over. Archbishop Fulton Sheen has not even been beatified yet, and New York and Peoria are fighting over his body and whether he should be exhumed for obtaining some first-class relics to disseminate. I wonder if Portugal would share some modest little second-class relic of Saint Anthony with this city bearing his name….
  13. DSCN1248And about Saint Anthony. He is ever-present everywhere in Portugal. This city named after him needs to pay more attention to him, particularly on his feast day in June. He is a really useful saint.
  14. And, finally, although this blogger might prove the exception….DSCN1257

Note Added: The featured photo strangely popped up on my facebook page immediately after I posted this. Thanks to Mark Twain for providing it.