Is it Autobiographical? A Guest Post by Anne Goodwin on the Reality and Fiction of Her Debut Novel Sugar and Snails

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Those of you saw my review of Anne Goodwin‘s debut novel Sugar and Snails will be delighted to read the following guest post from Anne on how much of her real self is contained within her novel. I find it a fascinating subject myself, as I know my own novels are strange conglomerations of true, hypothetically true, and utterly fanciful, with the reader (hopefully) never being certain which is which. I’ve been toying with this a lot in my third novel, The Other Three of Us, the first part of which comes out next week, and I’ll admit it can be a bit frightening. My story is actually told from the point of view of the author, which essentially invites the reader to assume that it’s autobiographical even when it’s not. Anne, too, has taken a brave step here in writing about a character whom many readers will assume represents Anne herself. This is the risk we take with fiction, and Sugar and Snails has done it amazingly well.

Is it autobiographical?

Apparently, most first novels are thought to be autobiographical, so I’m anticipating some fun when my readers start wondering how much of my character Diana’s life overlaps with mine. Fun because there’s an interesting secret at the heart of her identity that might make friends and acquaintances look at me in a different light.

When my husband read a proof copy a couple of months before publication, having lived with the story for the past seven years but, until then, never having read a word, he also wondered whether people would think it autobiographical. I asked whether he’d mind. After giving it some thought, he told me he wouldn’t because people would think he was Simon (Diana’s not-quite-partner) and Simon’s a decent guy.

It’s the fact that Diana’s story isn’t mine that gives me the freedom to tell it. I’ve no desire to open up the events of my own life to public scrutiny; nor do I have the capacity to write an autobiography or memoir in an engaging way. But, in writing about a character on a very different trajectory to my own, I’ve drawn deeply on my own experience. Diana isn’t me, but I’ve written her as if she could be. She’s an alternative version of me.

The best response I’ve come across to that awkward question, Is it autobiographical? (although, unfortunately, I can’t remember from where I’ve stolen it) is No, but it is personal. I’m very attached to this fictional alter ego of mine, very protective of her. Although I’m aware that, because of her anxiety about her secret, she can be irritating, I’ve found myself getting defensive when anyone criticises how she behaves. Well-intentioned (and useful) feedback from peer reviewers, especially in the early stages when I was just getting to know her, could be challenging. Why couldn’t they accept her as she was?

Most writers are personally involved in their characters at some level, but perhaps this felt particularly difficult for Diana (and me) because her journey towards self-acceptance is largely what the novel’s about. She fears that her friends (including decent-guy, Simon) will desert her if they discover who she really is. Of course, as her creator, I’m going to be sensitive to any hints of rejection.

While I don’t share the exact details of her biography, I do identify with her emotional experience, and it’s this that particularly interests me as a writer. I too have felt inadequate, ashamed of being me. I too have wished I could scrub out my old life and start again. I too have felt a yawning gap between how I see myself and how I feel I ought to be. Perhaps you’ve experienced this too?

Reflecting on this emotional connection, I wonder what people mean when they ask if a novel is autobiographical. Are they looking for a merging of author and character in terms of life events or life themes? The more I think about it, the less I comprehend what the question means. Perhaps, should anyone ask, I’ll pass the question back to them the way that therapists are prone to do, What do you think?

Reading through my novel for the final time before publication, checking for any errors that had escaped the notice of editors and proof-reader, I was surprised to come across the odd scene I’d borrowed from my own life. Not the big events, but small things, slightly tweaked to fit the story. Why should I be surprised when it was me who had put them there? As crazy as this might sound, it feels as if, having given those minor incidents to Diana, they no longer belonged to me. Hoping readers would discover connections between Diana’s life and their own, I didn’t expect that I’d discover them too.

Ever since I’ve been writing fiction seriously, I’ve been aware of the fuzzy boundary between fiction and real life. The moment someone asks me if Sugar and Snails is autobiographical, it’s going to get a lot fuzzier still.

 

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

Want to read more of Anne’s guest posts regarding her novel? Visit other stops on her month-long blog tour:

blog tour week 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19 thoughts on “Is it Autobiographical? A Guest Post by Anne Goodwin on the Reality and Fiction of Her Debut Novel Sugar and Snails

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  3. Caroline

    This is a really intelligent piece on the theme of fiction and autobiography. I finished Sugar and Snails on the train yesterday. I assumed that the reference to Newcastle were drawn from Anne’s own knowledge, and university life from the same. More deeply the exploration of understanding Di’s decisions and responses would drawn on her experience of life..But to assume that the main dilemma of the novel was hers in the particulars didn’t enter my head.
    I think that is part of the skill of a writer. It’s annoying to be asked again and again if something is autobiographical but it makes one think about the authenticity of the experience and how it is communicated to the reader.
    Caroline

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  5. Nicola Vincent-Abnett

    It’s such a common question, isn’t it? I generally reply by saying that when I write SF no one assumes that I’ve travelled through space or met an alien, so why must they assume that my real world stories are autobiographical… Of course they aren’t.

    I do like the idea that stories can be very personal, though, while not reflecting the author’s own life. I know that mine very often are.

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    1. Annecdotist

      Ha, Nic, I do like the idea of view flying through space!
      A few months on from this post, I’m thinking that these are very relevant questions, but it’s almost like asking What is a person? Any kind of answer we might give doesn’t really give credit to the underlying complexity.

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  8. Norah

    I second the comments of Sarah and Charli to both Anne and Lori. I often wonder (worry) about how much I reveal of myself when writing fiction. There is less control over the readers’ interpretations than with non-fiction, though how much control of that is also debatable.
    Thanks for inviting Anne over, Lori. It was lovely to meet up with her at your place. :)

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    1. Annecdotist

      I’ve found, however, in the fiction writing community, especially workshopping with experienced writers and tutors, there tends to be an assumption (at least in how they behave, who knows what they’re thinking underneath) that your fiction ISN’T autobiographical and I think that’s a helpful boundary when you’re learning to write (and for the teachers who can avoid getting into the mess of the writer’s psychology). So I don’t think it’s till publication that you really need to face it, by which time there is already a distancing when you’ve worked and reworked the material.

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  10. Sarah Brentyn

    Norah just quoted Barbara Kingsolver on her blog: “Write a nonfiction book, and be prepared for the legion of readers who are going to doubt your facts. But write a novel, and get ready for the world to assume every word is true.”

    Perfect, right? So true. This is a fabulous guest post, Anne. (Though, I admit to being one of those annoying people who were wondering if this was autobiographical. Sorry. O_o) There are some similarities. And there is, for certain, a blurry line indeed between fiction and real life.

    I second Charli’s “Cheers!” to you, Lori, on your third novel. :-)

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      I don’t think it’s even possible to avoid the presumption of autobiography, particularly if your book is in the first person. And as a reader, sometimes I think that’s part of the fun of reading multiple books by the same author – picking out the common threads. But Kingsolver is right – you have to be prepared to meet that presumption, because it’s going to exist whether you meant it to or not.

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    2. Annecdotist

      Ha, Sarah, one of my reviewers put it really nicely, something about the issues being dealt with so well she assumed it was autobiographical but checked something else I had written which indicated it wasn’t. I’m starting to think it might be quite cool now to be mistaken for Diana and perhaps a useful learning experience.

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