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When Real Life Seeps Into Fiction

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

When I’m reading, I’ll wonder how much of a novelist’s real life is used in their work. With the best books, I’ll sometimes think, how on earth can that author have conjured that scene from thin air. I thought that about several scenes in John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Garp grows up yearning to know about his father. He eventually learns that he was conceived when his mother essentially rapes a dying soldier she’s caring for…seriously, what a crazy twist! I recently read that Irving was, himself, raised by a single mom and never met his biological father.

The reason I started thinking about this recently is that my family learned the results of my mom’s DNA test this week. My mom, pictured, is 83 and has end-stage Parkinson’s. She was very excited to find out about her heritage. We now know that she's 60 percent English/Irish, 4 percent Sardinian and 12 percent of each of these: Balkan, Iberian and Scandinavian.

My mom was born in 1933 and adopted from a Detroit, MI orphanage in 1936, at three and a half. The details of what happened to her in those first three years are murky. She was told, in bits and pieces, that her mother was neglectful and possibly abusive, and that her maternal grandmother was the one who called Child Protective Services to report it. Her adopted siblings told her that her biological mom was a ‘dancer’ and an alcoholic. According to my mom, the way they told her those things was deeply hurtful.

My mother’s life with her adopted family was complicated. They were fairly well off, so she had every physical comfort a child could want. She was well-cared for, in a physical sense, but my mom and other family members have described her adoptive mother as a very cold, aloof woman. Her adopted father loved her very much, but he wasn’t affectionate and was ill all her life, suffering from diabetes. It was a very isolating childhood, especially in her teens. My mom is social and she’s described days and days when she literally didn’t speak more than a few cursory words to anyone.

My mother is what I call a ‘cycle-breaker’ and she made it her mission in life to ensure none of her five children and grandchildren ever felt the rejection and loneliness she did.

My mother’s history, her stories of her childhood, her battle with depression and fears of abandonment, all of these things had an impact on my own childhood. I remember times when she’d be telling me stories about her childhood - which she did a lot – and I’d feel this black cloud envelope the two of us. I adored my mother and her stories made me sad and angry. I became extremely protective of her.

In contrast, my dad’s stories about his upbringing on a farm in northern Michigan were a joy to hear. It’s not coincidence he was nicknamed ‘Sonny’ as a child. He delighted in telling stories and had a talent in finding the humor in them.

When I was writing my novel, The Life-Dividing Days, I wasn’t wholly conscious of how my experiences were influencing my first draft. The story seemed to be pouring out of me, almost as if it were simultaneously being dictated by the characters and being channeled. There were only a few times when I knew I was drawing upon my actual memories.

Two scenes, in particular, were very difficult to write, even though it was also cathartic. One was when Kari believes she’s had a miscarriage. I used a personal experience to write that.

My instinct, in the first draft, was that Hannah’s darker story needed a counter-weight, which became the story of her mother, Kari. I can look back now and see how that’s reflective of the light and darkness of my childhood; the counterweight of my parents’ stories.

At the start of the novel, Hannah is wholly abandoned. Although she is very different from my mother, it’s become clear to me now that I drew upon those feelings I felt growing up, imagining my mother’s loneliness and despair. I’ve also come to realize that Kari was based on the vision I had of my grandmother, who I only knew through my dad’s stories because all of my grandparents had passed before I was born.

Cora was, in essence, who I imaged my incomparable Great Aunt Helen to be in her youth. My grandmother and her sister, Helen, were teenagers in the Roaring Twenties. Though in The Life-Dividing Days, Kari’s story takes place a decade prior – in the teens – I was always fascinated by what her life was like.

It's been fun and interesting going through the DNA testing with my mom, but ultimately it doesn't change who we are. Each of us is an incredibly unique compilation of a million individual experiences, some small and some powerful.

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