Fact or fiction: does the distinction matter? If we think it doesn’t matter, does that make us crazy? How real is the distinction?
In my novel, Better You Go Home, I describe young Rosalye as tall, thin, with “razor” eyes and breasts like lively colts. Of course, I never laid eyes on this person. Was there a real person? Yes, there was a real person named Rosalye Kacalka. How could I be so definite about her appearance? I had a description to go on, and an image from someone I had known very well. I will come back to this.
Consider this excerpt from Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: “Every morning, thousands of waste-pickers fanned out across the airport area in search of vendible excess – a few pounds of the eight thousand tons of garbage that Mumbai was extruding daily. These scavengers darted after crumpled cigarette packs tossed from cars with tinted windows. They dredged sewers and raided dumpsters for empty bottles of water and beer. Each evening, they returned down the slum road with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas.”
Boo is a journalist who researches her facts, but the story here is not about the verifiable eight thousand tons of garbage. The story resides in the impression created by actions such as “darting” after crumpled cigarette packs,” or analogies based on images such as: “like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas.” Are these facts, technically? No, this is the application of the imagination to observed facts.
Consider another example, this time from Gulag Voices, an anthology of gulag survivor stories edited by Ann Applebaum. This excerpt is taken from Kazimierz Zarod’s “A Day in Labor Corrective Camp:” “On average, at least in the early months of captivity while they still remained fairly healthy, men could accomplish 75 percent and earned 800 grams (28 ounces) of bread; 50 percent, 700 grams (25 ounces), under 50 percent, 300 grams (101/2 ounces). Made of rye which had not been thoroughly cleaned, it was literally “black” bread because the bran left in it colored the bread black and made its texture course.”
Zarod reported these figures. Are they factual? Presumably, they could be verified if one were to care to fact check. But where is the story? “The unwritten law of camp – and I have heard from men from other camps that it was the same everywhere – was that a prisoner caught stealing another’s bread earned a death sentence!” We don’t have an actual death sentence, but now we have the germ of a story derived from the facts observed with the addition of speculation.
When a story departs from the fact base, does it become less “true”? Why depart from the fact base if the goal of story-telling is to arrive at some form of “truth” and if “truth” resides in observable facts?
Recently, a distant relative living in Minnesota, William Lenoch, sent me several old family photos. For the first time I was seeing actual photos of real people, relatives, at least a couple of whom had become characters in my novel. The Josef Lenoch in my novel in real life is very probably the Joseph Lenoch in this photo taken in Canada, where Lenoch finished out his life. My father never knew what happened to him, where he’d ended up, because no one would talk about him due likely to the execrable things he was reputed to have done, such as father children from the farm next door out of wedlock, precipitating the suicide of that farmer; such as marrying Barbora Kacalkova bigamously in Iowa when he still had a wife and family in Bohemia. Now suddenly he turns up in this photo. What does the photo say about the story I told in my novel?
The young woman in this photo could actually be the family member upon whom my character, Rosalye, was based. In my story, Rosalye, does not escape her fate in Eastern Bohemia. In real life, the person upon whom the character is modeled also emigrated and ended up in the upper Midwest of the U.S.
So. Does the distinction between fact and fiction really matter?
Facts are just facts. There is no story in facts. The story lies in our ability to depart from the facts, even if just a little, even if we take just enough wiggle room to have our real people “darting.” Even if we stay close to the “black bread” of our facts but allow ourselves to speculate “what if.”
“Truth” is the story we tell ourselves and truth requires deviation from the facts. Facts are stanchions that tether truth to the real world, that prevent “truth” from floating too high above us to matter anymore.