Last week, someone showed me a review of my novel Fallen on Amazon. The reviewer, Keith Hammond, made my day with some very generous praise, and then raised an issue that I’ve encountered often:
My only complaint is that the story seemed too personal and allegorical to be completely fictional. I would have preferred the book to have an addendum where the author directly talks about the issues or situations that caused him to write such a compelling book.
The first person to make this kind of comment to me was one my editors at Kregel, who, during our line-by-line slog through the manuscript, said that the dialog was “a little too good.” He wondered what experiences I had plundered. After the novel was released, my secretary gave it to a relative, who finished it and made the hair-raising assertion, “Obviously, Raley’s had an affair.” Then there are the youth at my church, who have dissected the story with frightening precision, tracing eccentricities and obsessions from my habits into my narrative.
If only they were so devoted to their schoolwork.
So I guess I’d better tell all.
From start to finish, Fallen is invented. I didn’t model any character on a person I’ve known, nor have I ever had to endure what Jim, the narrator, goes through. I’ve found that fictionalizing real-life scenarios and personalities almost always yields a flat story because there is too much authorial judgment on the characters and too little sympathy. A novelist needs to keep his cool.
Yet, for me, Fallen is a personal book. Mr. Hammond and others are right. The book is personal in this sense: almost every vile act I portrayed in the story was invented from what I have seen in my own soul.
When I drew characters for the story, for example, I tried to load them with contradictions. Jim loves his wife and daughter, but also treats them with selfish disregard. He wants to be gracious, but gives favor with calculation. Pastor Dave is an emotionally driven man, yet he disguises his motives by intellectualizing. Also, Dave wants to see himself as compassionate towards others, yet his core motivation is self-pity.
Each of these contradictions — and many others in my characters, male and female — has its origin in some struggle of my own for integrity. I simply implanted my hypocrisies within the quite different personalities of my characters. I hate confessing this procedure, because it makes the story feel like public nudity. But that’s what I did.
The same is true of the relational struggles that the book portrays. I put my follies into all of the marriages and working partnerships. I invented the male characters’ misconceptions of women, from their flippant infatuations to their ordeals in marriage, out of similar misconceptions of my own. While the power struggles among church leaders in the book grew out of the invented scenarios, my own anger in sympathy with each character showed me how the struggles would deepen.
The crimes in Fallen, then, were not written as veiled reports but as shame-faced extrapolations.
There are two important differences between my approach and the method of fictionalizing personal experiences.
First, as a matter of technique, memoirs-as-novels start with scenarios and create characters to fit, which yields a false story. A human being is not a robot. Fictional human beings cannot be robots and be true. So I started with characters and then shaped the scenarios. Every day I wrote, the characters surprised me.
Second, I would only write a memoir-as-novel to vent bitterness. I may be unusual in this tendency, and other authors might have other motivations. But, as a matter of repentance, I don’t write to vent. I used to. Creating a little world in which all of my judgments are validated can be satisfying. But writing such things does not edify anyone. I found the method of spreading my darkness among many characters to be sanctifying. Instead of judging the sins of others, I was able to examine my own.
This is a method that I feel bound to follow. The subject matter of Fallen does not need more angry scribblers. But, I hope, a repentant one might do some good.