It wasn't until about a week before my first book was published in 2010, a memoir about moving back to my parents' farm, that I started to worry. Not so much about forthcoming reviews or if the thing would generate any interest or sell any copies. I worried about the content. It wasn't just a story; it was my life. I'd always been a private person, and now anyone could read about the farm where I grew up, the animals, the land, about me and my family.
Admittedly, I didn't have to do it. After all, no one asked me to write the book. There was no bidding war, no lineup of publishers, and I hadn't been offered some extravagant advance that I couldn't turn down. There was, truthfully, very little anticipation. It was just something I wanted to do.
I also wanted the shelter and anonymity I thought fiction offered. Memoir is an implicitly revealing genre, and making up a story, I believed, would put some distance between myself and the reader; writing about real people, an actual setting and true events, as I had done, brought us together. While I'd been writing the book, it was just a "story" filled with "characters," but, upon release, it felt too close. Too personal.
After one of my first public readings, I met a woman who told me she'd lent my book to her friend. I was grateful and thanked her for sharing it, and said that I hoped her friend had enjoyed it, too.
"No," she said. "Actually, she had to stop reading it after about 50 pages because she really disliked the main character."
There was a (long) pause while we both silently translated her implication of "main character." It was me, of course.
"Sorry about that," I said.
I started writing fiction a few years ago. For the first time, I wasn't going to be a character, and would remain reassuringly concealed.
But throughout the last year, as I cut, rewrote and revised, and now, awaiting the release of my debut novel, I've discovered that the sense of exposure can feel, paradoxically, even greater with fiction. I wouldn't claim this to be a universal truth, of course. This is just the way it feels to me.
No one character in my novel is a direct reproduction of me, but each character, and the ideas that concern them, are all extensions of myself. The questions the characters wrestle with are the same questions I was concerned with, obsessed with and unsure about as I wrote the novel. If not, I couldn't have spent four years thinking about, and writing, the story.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aleksandar Hemon, who writes both fiction and memoir, discussed this distinction. According to Hemon, there's always a responsibility to other people when it comes to memoir because, even though you're the author, it's not just your story.
"When I make up a story, it's all mine," Hemon said. "A true story is always shared. Someone else was part of it."
And the author is, often, only revealing a part of themselves. No matter how personal, it's still just a segment, a portion, a piece. I published a second memoir, about a road trip I took with my 92-year-old grandma, in 2013.
As with my first book, I could choose what to include and what to omit. I only wrote about the things I felt were relevant to the story. Nothing was fabricated, but it was built around specific details and events. There was much that remained untold.
The memoirist shows the reader a toe, or leg, while covering up the rest. It has to be this way; it would be impossible – and render the book unreadable – to include everything. A memoir requires the author to exclude the majority of information.
Fiction starts without limits. There are few restrictions. The author doesn't encounter the boundaries of lived experience or reality.
The eventual finished product derives from a single source and, unlike a memoir, everything is on display. A tree in a memoir is a tree. A tree in a novel belongs to the author. The reader of fiction is invited to walk around inside the author's head. There's nowhere for the author to hide.
A novel begins immeasurably, and ends precise, confined and in full view. My first novel, fully imaginary, already feels more revealing, and more personal, than my previous books about my actual life.
This awareness can both disturb and thrill. Combined with the freedom to move about unburdened from reality, to write anything, are equal parts vulnerability and self-consciousness.
This solo performance can, predictably, feel lonely. But as the project progresses, I found, it can also, unexpectedly, unite. Instead of trying to convey a point, describe an experience, or explain a truth, it's more of a mutual unmasking. Beyond a basic description of plot, I would have a hard time saying what my novel is about, or what a reader should get from it. That's not up to me. Once read, interpretation is left to the reader.
A finished novel not only becomes a shared exploration for its author and its reader, but a kind of non-didactic exposition. A space for even more questions. It seems to me, after four years of writing, it's a chance for this kind of unlikely connection and conversation, as much as anything, that a fledgling novelist might be seeking.
Iain Reid's debut novel, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, will be published this month by Simon & Schuster Canada.