Paranoia, they’ll destroy ya… ~Kinks
A note came to me the other day from an old friend in Detroit and I totally misread the comment that was intended to compliment Dancing at the Gold Monkey; instead, I went on the defensive, thinking that what my friend meant was that there was a direct correlation with real events. I could not have been further from the truth.
Got your call late last night so didn't call back. Your message sounded strange. I re-read your email this morning and wanted to respond to something you said about knowing these people. Did you mean knowing them in an actual sense or knowing them in a fictional sense, as if they "could" be real? The reason I ask is because other people have said they know these people, which is good for a fiction writer like me, right? It means I've created characters that are authentic and believable.
A captain in the army (served in Vietnam the same years I did, 1969-70) responded that he also knew these people, they were like his friends, and family, and other soldiers he had known. In that way he felt the book was relevant to a lot of peoples' experience with soldiers returning from combat. Though I never could have possibly imagined it, that's the best reaction to the book I could hope for because it's intended to be a representation of how war fucks people up, to put it bluntly. I'm hoping readers will understand it as an anti-war book.
Okay, back to the characters. If you recognize any of these characters I think it's because of the environment within which they move. Each character is a composite of a lot of people I've met through the years--one of the strategies for making characters that I try to get my creative writing students to consider so they are not writing about the "real" people they know. Real people don't function well in fiction--they have to be saved for the memoir, and even then they have to be characterized to be interesting.
But Dancing isn't a memoir--I could never tell the "truth" about my early days in Detroit for a couple of reasons. One is that I can't remember a lot of it... Another reason is that fiction allows for metaphorical possibilities to create situations I hope come across as dramatic. What's a story without drama?
Anyway, I hope this note doesn't sound like a lecture in creative writing. I'm guilty of professing when it comes to writing fiction, and there are few things more annoying... If there is anything in any of the stories that is close to my experience, it's the stuff about the little boy's mother in the first story.
Does one see one's self in fiction? I hope so. That's why I read.