Is It Memoir or Is It Fiction?

04/28/2011 11:24 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2011

Memoir scandals break out all the time: someone's memoir turns out to be highly fictionalized. But what about the opposite? How much fiction is really disguised memoir?

Over the years I've often been asked how much of my writing is autobiographical, and even people who know me have gotten confused.

My recently re-published first novel Winter Eyes is about the son of Holocaust survivors who've hidden their Jewish past from him and tried to bring him up in New York as a Polish Catholic.

Because the book was set in New York where I grew up, and because it focuses on a child of Holocaust survivors (which I am, too), it actually puzzled one friend who knew a lot about my life. After he finished reading it, he said, "I didn't realize your parents got divorced when you were little." I told him they weren't divorced, though perhaps they should have been.

"And did your parents pretend they weren't Jewish?" I explained that of course they hadn't, and we'd even talked about my Jewish background before, more than once.

He wasn't done. There was a whole series of things he said he hadn't known about me, but those were all drawn from the life of the boy in the novel, not part of my real life. In each case, I explained the difference. After a long pause, he said, "No wonder I was confused."

Because I had woven in bits and pieces of my real experiences, refracted in complex ways, he caught their scent, but those few traces of reality made him assume it was all true.

My novel Winter Eyes is emotionally real, or more accurately, an alternative reality. I wrote it imagining an almost completely different life from the one I had. For instance, I had a very troubled relationship with my older brother, but the boy in Winter Eyes is an only child. So in a way, you could also call the novel a secret memoir.

My friend's confusion is especially strong with stories and books I've written in the first person, and people after a reading from one of those will invariably refer to "The part where you...."

I reply, "You mean the part where he...." and they smile indulgently. It's happened not just in America, but at readings I've given in Germany. Years ago, I was annoyed, but I eventually learned to take it as a compliment. The narrative had seemed so real to the audience that people automatically assumed I was transcribing something from my own life.

The confusion reminds me again and again of the power of storytelling to move people so much that it seems it must be real -- even when it's fiction. I fell in love with that power way back in second grade. Reading authors as different as Isaac Asimov and Dumas, I started to learn and appreciate the gorgeous ways in which, as Robert Browning said, stories are "always old and always new."