-John Updike, on Erica Jong’s thinly veiled auto-biographical protagonist in Fear of Flying
A while back my ex-husband asked me what the subject of my work in progress was.
I thought for a moment. “Well, I guess it’s about my life.”
“Your life? Isn’t that a little presumptuous?”
“I think it would be presumptuous for someone else to write about my life,” I told him.
“I mean, aren’t you too young for that? Don’t people write about their lives at the end of them?”
But before I could say anything more, my younger son piped in, “How could you write a book at the end of your life? Wouldn’t you be dead?”
Most writers write about their lives. Some admit to it, and that is called nonfiction. Some don’t, and they produce novels.
Now, I don’t mean that my novel is exactly about me. That’s the beauty of a novel. But I draw on myself and my experiences. I can’t help it. I know myself so well, and I’ve had such interesting experiences. It’s like God ordained that I write it all down.
But the problem is what to admit to.
When my novel comes out and you read it, if there’s something shocking, it didn’t really happen.
If you know me and you think you recognize someone in the book, you’re wrong.
Have I covered myself enough?
The truth fascinates me so much that I can’t ignore it. Every moment of my life is a study in human nature. If I didn’t write about myself, I’d have to follow someone else around, because you can’t make this stuff up. Truth is stranger than fiction, but it’s so strange that we often have to label it f'iction.' I think in fact that the deepest truths are in fiction. Does that make sense?
Erica Jong is so obviously Isadora Wing that I could tell after reading the opening and then scanning her bio on the back cover. They went to the same schools and received the same degrees. They both married Asian men. Give me a break. And the more you delve, the more clues there are - even to the point of the poetry John Updike pointed out.
Another funny thing (if you find any of this funny) is that I always felt my current novel is my generation’s Fear of Flying. I thought this without knowing anything about Fear of Flying and certainly never having read it. I just had this certainty in my heart. Then, when I came across Fear of Flying at Goodwill (they always have an excellent book selection, which I don’t know is a good or bad sign for literature.) I of course picked it up and started reading it right there, leaning against a clothes rack. Yes! It is, as I suspected from the title, a coming of age story about a woman. It is fearless (despite the title) and fresh, as John Updike wrote in his review, and even though it is now dated and we can laugh at some of the terms (there are analysts everywhere, for example), the wit and ideas Ms. Jong put forth are so honest that the book remains relevant all these years later.
I would like to write to Erica Jong and thank her for paving my way – even though I was nearly finished writing my novel when I encountered her book, it rallied me so very much. However, someone told me she’s dead. I will check into that further.
Anyway, the point I wanted to make for today is that good fiction always contains truth, and that truth of course comes from the writer’s heart. So whether or not we realize it (or admit it) we authors have all put something of ourselves into our novels. Unless we’ve written work for hire. Or Twilight.