One of my mother’s friends apologized to her for how I treated her as a teenager after reading The Divorce Girl. “It’s fiction,” my mother says, adding, “And she was only 14 at the time.” This, in a nutshell, is the confusing confluence of truth and fiction in my novel and my life. The mother in The Divorce Girl is totally fictitious, but some of the words and deeds of her teenager daughter are taken from real life.
The novel blurs what happened, what we in my family think happened or happen to remember, and many made-up events, people and perceptions. Some of the real people ask when my father dated Fatima, and then I tell them: Fatima is completely fictional. Some note that Boy in the Englishtown Auction is the perfect Ben, and actually, he is. Some see the fictional elements of the dad but many take the dad as lock, stock and barrel for the real thing (he’s a mixture actually). Mostly, though, just reading this nudges us all to sort out together a little more of the mega-explosive busting apart of our extended family in the mid-70s, a time even distant cousins still refer to it as “the divorce.”
Meanwhile, many of my friends and relatives tell me, “I loved the book, but I hated it too because of what he did to you.” Yet because I don’t feel any animosity toward the abusive fictional (or real) father, I have no old anger or hurt left. Chalk that up to years of therapy, great friends and community, and most of all, decades of writing this book in my mind and on the page (it also helped that my father, before he died, told me to “write you want,” giving this book his blessing).
So what’s real and what’s made-up? Although I have a pretty good sense of the answer to this, on a page-by-page basis, it’s not something I’ll talk about except in small bits. But I will say that almost all of the characters are fictional while the pain, loss and fear are real. Writing a novel instead of a memoir allowed me to cozy up with hard stuff I lived. It brought me far away from the actual details to come home to what I wanted to say most about this story: healing is not the way we think, people are far more complex than we can grasp, family comes from unlikely places, and making something is a powerful way to make a life freer of fear and fuller of love.
P.S. I was never a teenage photographer. I chose another art (guess which one).
P.P. S. For a great review of the novel, check out Hubert O’Hearn’s fabulous review in The Paris Herald