All writers are both devotees and prisoners of their childhoods….
–Pat Conroy in The Writer June 2012
Pat Conroy refers to fiction writers in the above quote. As much as we try to escape our childhoods as adults, as writers we need it to reveal to us the great themes of our own lives. That is, if we care to ferret around to find them in our memories and those of people close to us. Whether we examine our own lives or not, I believe that our childhoods infuse our fiction. We can pay attention to it, or we can focus on the more superficial layers of our writing. And here’s the cherry on top: the writing is the writing whether or not we choose to delve deeper. At least until some reader starts asking questions….
Some writers, like Pat Conroy, intentionally use images, details, personalities and situations from his childhood as raw material for their stories. I think To Kill a Mockingbird endures as a great novel because it takes each reader back to her childhood, prods her into remembering and examining either for fun or insight. Other writers focus on the psychological or emotional terrain of childhood. Still others announce adamantly that their fiction is not autobiographical in any way. I fell into the last category.
By setting the Perceval novels in the near future, I thought I was escaping the past. One scene inspired from my own childhood landed in the trash after a couple drafts — it didn’t work for what I wanted and it was too close to autobiography. Determined to make the story total fiction, I weeded out anything that might come from my own life, even remotely.
Then I confronted Evan Quinn’s childhood. I wanted him to want as an adult to escape the past which of course tenaciously clings to him through memory. Developing his childhood, what it was like to grow up in a dystopian America, dovetailed nicely with the work I was doing at the time on researching the future. As a child, Evan had no control over his immediate environment, as well as the larger political and social environments. I needed to figure out what his family life was like, what his school and social life was like, his friends, his survival strategies, and his aspirations. All pleasant, challenging and fun.
After I finished, I knew what Evan’s life’s foundation was and the things most important to him. I did the same kind of work for most of the other characters as needed. This gave me insight into how they’d interact with Evan. It also deepened them as characters. So, I decided that opening the childhood box for characters strengthened characterization and made them more human.
And to my surprise, I began to see themes emerging. I don’t write to theme because I don’t want to sound preachy or didactic. It took another 2-3 drafts of the first novel before I could see the themes clearly. My first thought was, “Uh-oh. Evan’s not finished here and wants a sequel.” My next thought was about recognizing the themes as things important tome, not a character in the book. Suddenly, I faced my own life experiences, my own childhood, and my psychology.
The Perceval series is fiction and not autobiographical. But I am the one writing the story. No matter how diligent I am about deleting anything that could be autobiographical, my whole life (to date), my emotions, psychology, experiences, and the things most important to me stand behind the words giving them substance…..