On Fact, Fiction and Vulnerability

This book wasn’t supposed to be scary.

When I set out to write 17 Weddings, I intended to put some space between myself and my writing. I was determined to avoid the depth of self-reflection that I’d experienced while writing my debut novel, Goodnight Sunshine.

I hadn’t intended my Goodnight Sunshine protagonist to be a reflection of me. I had given Oliver Bruce enough different traits to override the familiar settings I placed him in. I would focus on developing an intriguing plot and crafting snappy dialogue — an intellectual and emotionally safe process. I would write what I knew, while also holding my protagonist at an arm’s length. After all, it’s not like I was writing a memoir; it was just a work of fiction.

Or so I thought.

In fact, Oliver Bruce became a pseudo-me character who consumed a sizeable portion of my mind and explored my deepest emotions. Plot became secondary — almost a nuisance — and dialogue became an extension of the deeply personal protagonist I created. By the time I published Goodnight Sunshine in November, 2015, I was scared to share it. I knew that my deepest feelings and thoughts were woven throughout the entire story, and I realized that people who knew me would have a difficult time separating fact from fiction. Truth be told, I’m not even sure that I can completely separate them anymore.

17 Weddings was going to be different. Through some combination of conscious and subconscious thought, I created Bernard Kirby: a man-boy who could only be described as an “anti-me”. A blustering fool with a big mouth and a lack of ambition, “B-man” could never be mistaken for Mark Cameron. Documenting Bernard’s ridiculous antics could never pull me down into the depths of my soul. Bernard was a safe character to write.

Or so I thought.

In fact, 17 Weddings is loaded with Markisms (not to be mistaken with Marxism). So many of the characters Bernard meets, and the situations he finds himself in, come from my own personal memory bank. Sure, I toyed with context and folded in more than a hint of exaggeration. But in almost every cringe-worthy situation, I called on personal experience to make the scene uncomfortably believable. For many of the memories that fuelled my most outrageous Bernard Kirby moments, I was an embarrassed bystander; but in some cases, I was the perpetrator.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

I’ve made two very public appearances this month: a profoundly personal speech/performance with my wife, Sheila, at our local library; and a gritty reading from 17 Weddings at a jam-packed art gallery last night. I had thought the speech would be more difficult, since it peeled a layer from the most painful and shameful period of my own life. But it turned out to be a levitating experience — a well-received moment of personal vulnerability that has opened me up to sharing more of my personal story, in the hope that it might lighten my emotional load while helping others.

Last night’s reading was supposed to be fun. I was just reading a work of fiction about a character who was almost my exact opposite. And yet, standing in front of a large audience spewing dialogue loaded with sexist and racist words, I felt more vulnerable sharing one of Bernard Kirby’s low points than I’d felt sharing my own only two weeks earlier.

Perhaps I found it easier to bare my own soul because I’ve had more than ten years to come to terms with my weaknesses. I also know that even in my darkest moments, I have always carried myself with sensitivity and a deep sense of humanity. And in reality, I’m still only sharing myself in a generalized way, hinting at transgressions while speaking in philosophical terms about relationships and truth and morals. By contrast, in fiction I allow myself to express raw, often uncomfortable thoughts. Bernard Kirby is a politically-incorrect mouthpiece, and although his positions on many issues are the polar opposites of my feelings, his candour is at times refreshing.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

If I’ve learned one thing from writing two completely different books, it’s that they’re not so different after all. Both Goodnight Sunshine and 17 Weddings are deep dives into the human condition. And both books, in their own ways, are deeply personal reflections of my own life. I like to say that Goodnight Sunshine was a mid-life crisis story in the guise of a mystery adventure. Similarly, 17 Weddings is a layered exploration into human relationships, in the guise of a romantic comedy.

Paul Shore, author of Uncorked: My Year in Provence and an advance reader for 17 Weddings, made the astute observation that “surely there is a bit of rough-around-the-edges-big-heart-big-mouth Bernard in all of us, though hopefully not too much!” Personally, I would like to embrace a bit more of Bernard’s straightforward delivery when sharing my own story. But not too much — that would be scary.

4 thoughts on “On Fact, Fiction and Vulnerability

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