For the last year, I have been trying to find representation for my novel-in-stories. I have been close many times, but it just hasn’t happened yet. And in that time, I have made changes and received a lot of advice from great writers and editors. Now, I’m at a new crossroad. Let me explain.
This week, I received an unbelievably genuine and thorough response from an agent who had been reading my book for the last few months. She liked a lot and didn’t like other parts, and she suggested some revisions. What she suggested was that I should think about positioning my book as memoir — with revisions of course to make it accurate — to find its most advantageous place in the marketplace and on the bookshelf.
And I have heard this before from people I respect, but I’m starting to think — is it time to make this change? Am I ready?
Allow me to get a little bit more specific. My book, my novel, is a coming-of-age story about a kid named James Tully, growing up in his working-class mill town, dealing with a mother who has a mental illness, and trying to find a place where he belongs. The book is set mainly in a Massachusetts town — pretty much my hometown — that prides itself on an illustrious past, while at present it faces economic challenges. Many of the characters share the town’s eccentricity and dreams. And the main character struggles with visions—moments of lyrical and psychotic intensity—that compel him to believe he is mentally ill like his mother.
Well, the truth is that I am James Tully. I have a mother who has a mental illness, and, in the past, this tore our family apart. When I was younger, even in college, I struggled with the idea of what it meant to be mentally ill. I struggled with trying to figure if my mother was actually sick or a victim of a social stigma. I struggled with the reality of mental hospitals. I struggled with the enigma that maybe I was sick like my mother. And I always struggled, most, with the question: what really separates the mentally ill from the normal? That question is at the heart of my book.
But because the character has visions and some of the events were dramatized, I didn’t think I could call the book memoir. I think people get away with a lot, today, with what writer’s call truth. And that word truth, well, what that hell does that mean anyway? Truth, to me, has nothing to do with facts and what matters most is dramatizing the internal, writing about the life of the mind in a way that engages the audience.
To me, fiction is just as much of a truth, sometimes, as any memoir. Like John Dufresne’s great writing book, it’s The Lie That Tells A Truth. Think about books like Bukowski’s, Ham on Rye, Jack Kerouac’s, On The Road, or Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You could totally slap memoir on those books and it would be so.
Unfortunately, this is the writing era of truth. That we must distinguish between what is real and what is not real. Well, when it comes to mental illness, isn’t that the heart of the problem? How can we really write about the mind, the sickness, delusions and projections, with the tyranny of truth standing over our desk?
Well, maybe I can’t change the mold. Maybe I can’t expect an agent or an editor — especially during this economic hardship — to take on a book that defies convention, purposefully. Or maybe my book isn’t good enough the way it’s written, like many agents have pointed out, to compete in the current marketplace. I’m leaning towards the last one.
Part of me believes that my inability to label this book as memoir is that I am afraid to step out of the haze of fiction. That I am afraid to acknowledge, yes, my family was ripped apart by illness. That I am afraid to hurt my family. And this is true. Shit, I guess I just admitted it to you, reading this blog.
So, if anyone has any thoughts or advice, I would love to hear it. Over and out. I will continue to update.