I'm not a novelist, but from what I hear the characters in a novel are often composites of people the author knows or has observed, among them friends – who may or may not be content with a portrait in which they see aspects of themselves. It's a risk the author takes but, as the work is fiction, there is the benefit of deniability.
As a journalist based in France, I have long worked at the other end of the spectrum. The people described in news articles are portrayed factually, their quotes recorded accurately. There is no ambiguity.
And what about memoir? Friends will most likely be portrayed, and feathers may be ruffled. It's a delicate business. But in the best of cases the author can find a way to make the portrait true to life without giving offense.
Now let me tell you a story. After completing my memoir, Desperate to Be a Housewife, I went on to a new project – an oral history of French Jews whose parents managed to escape deportation by the Gestapo and the French police during World War II.
The idea arose in May following a conversation with one of my friends, a woman I'd known for 40 years, who suddenly began talking about her family's history during the war and how it had affected her life. I had never heard a word of this before. We were at a birthday gathering, and the fellow sitting next to her then spoke up and told the story of his parents. My friend – let's call her A. – had known him for years, but knew nothing of his story.
Walking home, it occurred to me that these stories – riveting tales of courage, treachery and luck – would make a fascinating book. All the more so because these stories were hidden from history: it appeared, after checking around, that many 60ish French Jews, like A., rarely mentioned what had happened to their parents during the war.
With this potential book in mind, I enlisted A. and seven other people, among them some of my closest French friends, to come to a dinner last June at which we discussed the fate of their parents in Nazi-occupied France. Over the summer I transcribed the tape of that fascinating conversation – 26,000 words. I sent the transcripts out to the participants and waited for their corrections. And waited. Only one of the eight replied.
In January we held a second session, to discuss why they so rarely evoked their parents' fate. This time it didn't go well. The participants expressed doubts about the project. They announced that they wanted neither their names nor those of their parents used. They said that enough had already been written on the subject, and that no one was interested. The gathering broke up in acrimony.
I felt shattered, and after much soul-searching decided to shelve the project. If it was a matter of choosing between a book and my friends, I chose the friends. Chapter closed?
No, because it raises the question of how to handle a literary work in which friends become part of the 'material'. How does one's creative freedom as a writer intersect with the legitimate concerns of the individuals portrayed?
In this case, as I later wrote to the participants, I learned a few things. First, that the war is far from over, at least here in France. Its effects are still felt so strongly that it has virtually silenced the children of survivors – not of survivors of the camps, whose stories have been recorded magisterially by various authors, notably Helen Epstein in Children of the Holocaust – but survivors of the desperate quest to avoid deportation and probable death.
These stories, too, deserve to be recorded. As they are unknown, they will die out with the children. This is a tragedy.
But my approach was clearly flawed. Maybe, as a New York friend said in retrospect, I should have obtained a release from the participants before beginning. Or maybe we should have proceeded more slowly, giving the participants a greater role in shaping the project. But then it would have been a different book.
I had a vision, and I enlisted my friends in hopes of creating a meaningful work of history. It didn't work out the way I'd expected. Have you encountered similar problems?
Meg Bortin is the author of Desperate to Be a Housewife, a memoir about a young woman who leaves America, moves to Paris, becomes a reporter and goes on to Fleet Street and Gorbachev's Russia. Her misadventures with men play out against a backdrop of world-changing events as she pursues her quest for a story with a happy ending. You can read more about Meg and her book on her web site.