When I first started writing The Likely World, I thought of it as a ‘speculative memoir.’ There are lots of words that already exist for novels which ghost into non-fiction in interesting ways: roman-a-clef, auto-fiction, and the humble autobiographical novel, but none of these words exactly described what I was trying to do which was to marry the speculative engine—‘what if’—to the creative process of memoir.
If you’ve ever tried to write about your own life, you know interesting things start to happen. You dig into a memory space in your mind, and over hours, days, details you thought you had forgotten surface. It’s like a cross between a neurological experiment and a research practice, and it’s cool to find yourself unearthing a memory you didn’t know you had.
I often tell people I’m a professional liar (this is probably subconsciously stolen from a line from a David Lehman poem I teach to my students, “Operation Memory”: ‘All my friends had jobs/As professional liars.”) What I mean is, I’m just an inveterate fiction writer. When I was doing story slams, where the rules are that you have to tell the truth for five minutes, I. Just. Couldn’t.
Same in the book. And I wasn’t really trying that hard. I’d mine a memory, and then I would…speculate.What if it had been different? Who should I put in this scene instead of the person who was there? I’d wander off wildly. Then, when I sat down again, I would pull myself back to the memories. Why? I got nothing for you, except that novel writing is definitely a pathological condition, and maybe I was trying to keep some rooted relationship to myself. Naw, that’s a lie. I really don’t know why I did it.
Chapter four in the novel is the second chapter which deals with the narrator’s life at sixteen. She’s called Mellie. Wink. Wink. Subtle, huh? I put her in an apartment where I actually lived with my mom. It was in a nice neighborhood, but it had bugs. In real life, I’m pretty proud of the way my mom made choices, on limited funds, when I was small. We sacrificed maybe having a nicer place so we could be in a safer and more convenient neighborhood. It turns out my mom was right to make this decision. Your zip code is one of the most reliable socio-economic indicators of future success. I also don’t have any shame about having been poor. Again, kind of proud that we scrabbled, and made it out, even if it might have been hard at the time.
So there the scene is, in a real setting, and in pops this alternate-reality mother. If you know my mom, for example, you know she is a terrific hostess. That among her other qualities is a warmth which makes her guests feel welcome. That she is—or was before that jerk Corona came to town—most herself with a table full of great food and happy company. The mom in the scene is nervous around a guest, anxious about serving frozen fish sticks. And she’s a kind of mystic who reads past lives. Yeah, sure, my mom had a tarot phase in the seventies, but that’s like saying she had a polo shirt in the 80s or owned a tech stock in the nineties. So why did I put this imaginary woman in the apartment?
One thing about the character is that she bears some resemblance to the first fictional mother in the first story I published. This woman was also a mystic, and also a bit at sea. So, I guess I might think of her as an archetype. Why she haunts my writing is a question for the therapist, I suppose. But, the point is, where a memoirist is bound to the things as they happened, the fiction writer plays in an infinite field. Anyone can appear, at any time, in any place. For me, this infinity is necessary to what I want to say, the lie that gets me through to the next scene.
In the end, I abandoned the term ‘speculative memoir’ because I think it describes how I wrote, but probably not what I wrote. Still, a part of the label remains important to how I consider this book. I do hope readers will be sparked to think about the interplay between imaginative- and reality-based material, and how they operate differently, and sometimes collaboratively to make a whole.
There’s a small passage I did write with my real-life mom in mind, and it comes towards the end of part II, after Mellie has experienced a scarring trauma which will drive her motivation for the rest of the novel. It’s not much of a spoiler, so I’ll end this post with the passage:
“For an instant, my mom is as tall as the Statue of Liberty; she is marking safe harbor for me. Mothers: what is missed in all your psychology is also their super powers to heal, is how a mother’s love is a port after a shipwreck. Sails tattered, mast split, it’s where you drift when all the instruments fail.”—The Likely World