If you could ask your favorite living author any question about writing in order to aid your own writing journey, what would you ask?
I waited too long. I got a chance to ask Pat Conroy a question at a book signing, but I felt my question was too personal, too much about the interior work of an author. I chickened out. I asked something safe.
Pat died in 2016. If I could have that chance again, I think I would be more bold.
I’ve always wondered, given the negative reaction of some of his family members about them showing up in his books, if he ever regretted writing about those he knew—particularly his sister, Carol Ann. In 2011 he wrote on his blog, “My sister, Carol Ann, remains a stranger to my life. I only see her at wedding and funerals—all of which she turns into personal nightmares for me . . .”
If Pat had the chance to write any of his stories again, would he choose differently? Would he protect anyone he used as a model for a character? Would he avoid revealing things that eventually broke their relationship?
Subsequently, in other nonfiction books, Pat gave a glimpse of an answer. For example, his father, at first, hated the novel The Great Santini. But after publication and film, Donald Conroy embraced the role. He would attend book signings with his son and sign right next to him. Pat wrote that there was a change in their relationship and that, in a way, his writing helped heal the wounds of the past. His father transformed into a different man.
Writing can be a healing art.
But what about Carol Ann? Even when their father died, there was such anger and vitriol between her and Pat, as revealed in The Death of Santini.
Let’s say you’re offered a bestselling book and a film deal, but you have to reveal intimate secrets of family members or friends. You know those secrets revealed, those personal insights into an individual’s life, will harm your relationship. Maybe destroy it forever. Do you sacrifice that person for your art? Are the things you experience simply fodder for the stories you tell, or do you as an artist have a responsibility to veil? And even if you hide the identity of the person you pattern this character after, will they see themselves in your story? (This goes beyond any legal question of libel and hits at the heart of the writer.)
In my latest novel, Under a Cloudless Sky, I took a real-life situation with my mother and turned it into a historical mystery. The premise is that Ruby is older and her children are afraid she’s going to kill somebody driving back and forth to the grocery store or the post office. Already several mailboxes have not survived. Her children try to reason with her and she pushes back. Finally, her daughter and son take Ruby’s keys. This is the inciting incident that makes Ruby hatch a plan. The next day when her daughter goes to the house to check on her mother, Ruby is missing. It’s Gone Grandma. Where did Ruby go? Was she abducted?
There are many twists and turns in the story and the reader travels between 1933 and 2004 to learn more about Ruby’s past and the secret she has hidden for seventy years.
But my biggest fear was that my mother (who is feistier than Ruby) would read the book and see herself. And not only that, but would be hurt by my portrayal. Is my “art” worth hurting my ninety-one-year-old mother?
There are voices in a writer’s head that stunt the writing process. If I’m flying along, telling my story, and somewhere in the back of my mind I hear, If she reads that, she’s going to kill you, I’m out of the story, the dream, and into the fear that my mother will be hurt. That gets my mind on myself rather than the story I’m trying to tell, and that is an exit off the fiction interstate you don’t want to take.
So, at the beginning of telling Ruby’s story, I had to wrestle well with all of the possible reactions and consequences. I love my mother. I want to honor her, not denigrate her in any way. But is taking this real situation that, frankly, many people in their middle age are going through, worth the risk? I concluded it was for several reasons. First, I’ve written about my mother in dozens of ways in dozens of books (literally) and she’s never seen herself. She’s never asked, “Did you get that from something I did?” Second, there are many admirable qualities about Ruby and what she’s been through that I knew readers would be endeared to her and would root for her. It’s a loving, well-rounded portrayal of this character that shows not just her foibles and faults, but the depth of her life and story. Third, my mother is the forgiving type.
So I ran into this story with abandon and tried not to think about my fears regarding her feelings. Every few weeks she’d ask about my “coal mining book” and I’d tell her the status. Finally, in December I received my first copies and I sent her a box stuffed full because she loves to give them to family and friends.
For a few weeks, I heard, through my mother, what others thought. I heard how much my cousins and friends in my hometown enjoyed it. Then one day she paused and asked in a little girl’s voice, “Am I Ruby?”
It was her turn to ask her favorite writer a question. And since I do not want to risk writer/mother privilege, I will keep my answer veiled.
Now, if you could ask any living or deceased writer a question that would aid in your own writing journey, what would you ask?
Chris Fabry is an award-winning author and radio personality who hosts the daily program Chris Fabry Live on Moody Radio. He is also heard on Love Worth Finding, Building Relationships with Dr. Gary Chapman, and other radio programs. A 1982 graduate of the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism at Marshall University and a native of West Virginia, Chris and his wife, Andrea, now live in Arizona and are the parents of nine children.
Chris’s novels, which include Dogwood, June Bug, Almost Heaven, and The Promise of Jesse Woods, have won five Christy Awards, an ECPA Christian Book Award, and a 2017 Award of Merit from Christianity Today. His eightieth published book, Under a Cloudless Sky, is a novel set in the coalfields of his home state of West Virginia. His books include movie novelizations, like the recent bestseller War Room; nonfiction; and novels for children and young adults. He coauthored the Left Behind: The Kids series with Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, as well as the Red Rock Mysteries and the Wormling series with Jerry B. Jenkins. Visit his website at www.chrisfabry.com.