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Life Making Trouble for Fiction

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Last week, here and in the Times Literary Supplement, was announced the discovery of a story by Vladimir Nabokov on boxing.

On the same day my doorbell rang, and on the threshold stood a man who had grown up in my house. His parents, the builders of this mid-century wooden house, once rented to Vladimir Nabokov, then a professor at Cornell University.

Last year my first novel came out, Cleaning Nabokov's House--which is not actually about housecleaning, no matter what Twitter insists.

Those three facts are true. As a fiction writer, I am frequently asked how much of my work is true. All fiction writers get this question, but I get it with particular vehemence. This makes me happy; I worked hard to make something absurd seem true, and there it is: proof the reader was persuaded, even seduced.

There is no corollary to my real life. Real life lying turns me into a stammering, blushing fool. Mostly I don't try, with the exception of kindness and constructive parenting. ("No, Sweetpea, I have no idea why 'suck' is a bad word.")

Truth is a jumping off place for writing fiction, a place from which to take flight. When I first sat down to write in this empty wooden house, the fact of Nabokov preceding me, writing here in the same space, was horrifically intimidating.

I leaned into the fear and began writing about him, imagining a manuscript found at the house. It had to be about something, so I made it about baseball. My fear receded; I'd invented a Nabokov manuscript found in this house, my real house, about baseball. I knew that Nabokov would never waste his great mind writing about sports. It was preposterous.

The fiction of Cleaning Nabokov's House stretches credibility. The narrator, Barb, after finding the baseball manuscript by Nabokov, goes on to open a happy kind of brothel, a whorehouse staffed by the male crew team of the nearby university. (Cornell has not sued me yet.) The patrons of this house of pleasure are the nice women of her town. (Neither has the PTA removed me from their list serve.)

Books take a while to arrive on shelves, and I wrote this material years ago, even before the revelation of the posthumous unfinished Nabokov book, The Original of Laura. So when the person whose parents had rented to the Nabokovs rang my doorbell, it was years too late to find out any details I could use in the book, but my fascination has not dimmed.

He told me that the Nabokovs were contentious tenants, complaining about the house. The homeowners were away on a sabbatical in Paris, and had never met Vera and Vladimir Nabokov. His mother resented their complaints. When she returned from Paris to find notes of Nabokov's in the house--and she has taken lifelong delight in telling this story--she "tore them up, and threw them away."

So here it is: there were notes of his, here in the house where I live, and Nabokov did write about sports. Am I still allowed to say I made it up? Long before my birth, this stuff happened. And capriciously, I invented it, sitting here in the space with nothing but his novels and my unruly brain.

Other things I have written have "become true." (Not the crew team thing, sorry, women readers who have asked me about this.) If I were interested in woo-woo kinds of things, I would pay more attention to this aspect of my brain. I could hang a shingle: Sooth Writer.

Other writers have had the experience of writing something that comes true. We might take it as validation that we are on the right path in our work, or decide it's cosmic nonsense. When it's that bit we wrote about our bad college boyfriend we shrug, Karma?

If I were trying for rationality, I would offer that the task of the writer is to make a pattern, pattern being both design and repetition. When we are creating pattern on the page, we look for--and find--pattern in our lives as well. Pattern is meaning, or at least suggests that meaning is present in the relationship of events occurring over time (i.e. plot). And time is an arbitrary concept.

The urge to write a novel may come from a desire to create order and meaning though real life may have little of either. But let me not get too heavy here, in me the urge is to entertain, to take to the air, unhampered by truth.

A friend asked me to write something in the new novel about a winning lottery ticket. I cannot promise that will stay in the final draft, but I can say there will be a happy ending. Anything else would be asking for it.