“I live in Athens, Iowa…Like all college towns, an island of art and intellect and tax supported affluence, a world safe from the crime and poverty and shameless hucksterism of the rest of America. Or so we tell ourselves. We’re different. We’re better. We live the life of the mind.”
Write what you know.
As a writing cliché, “write what you know” is the gold standard. Of course, by that standard, prolific writers like John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates must know a lot more than the rest of us.
For my first novel, THE FLAMINGO RISING, what did I know? I worked my way through college by managing movie theatres. In fifteen years, a lot happened to me. I set a funeral home on fire with my July Fourth fireworks. I found a dead woman sitting on my theatre toilet and carried her back to her car and set her behind the wheel. I was robbed. I got beat up by a motorcycle gang. On more than one occasion, I told myself, “This would make a great story.” I had the facts, the experience, some basic writing skills, but twenty years passed before I started to write. A novel about me. Change the name, but it was still me, Larry the theatre manager. The pirate poet. Popcorn and prose and the movies.
I wrote ten pages and stopped. It was 1987. I had the facts, characters, and a plot. But I did not have a story.
Something else happened in 1987. My wife and I adopted our son, and, soon after, our daughter. In 1994, I finally figured out the real story I wanted to tell. Everything that was going to be the core of my earlier novel remained, but I added two new characters: the adopted son and daughter of a pair of slightly demented southern parents. The characters were not my children, but those characters would have never existed if my children had not changed my life. A book about the movie business became a story about parents and children, about nature versus nurture. That was the real story. The world’s largest drive-in theatre was merely the setting, not the story. I finished a first draft in nine months.
And this relates to my second book, ATHENS, AMERICA…how?
Some of you reading this essay now already know the background to ATHENS. It’s about Iowa City, right? About the horrific tragedy of the Eric Shaw shooting, right? If you read the book, you knew the real story beforehand, right? Even if you never read the book, you know, right? You know because you were part of that story yourself. A small number of participants, but thousands of spectators.
And this was the hard lesson I learned after ATHENS was released in 2004. I thought I had written a novel. In Iowa City, most people read it as journalism…not fiction. As much as I might protest my innocence, Iowa City readers only saw ATHENS as an account of the facts, and so it must be judged by its adherence to the facts surrounding that event. This character in the book must be that real person in Iowa City. That real person must be this character.
And, for sure, the book was full of actual Iowa City residents, their real names, so how could this not be about Iowa City. The giant deer named Hartford and a Black Angel that moves? Well, that’s just writerly smoke and mirrors. After awhile, I realized that it was impossible for most people here to separate my novel from their own experience.
For example, a major character in ATHENS is Harry Hopkins, the City Manager. If you know your American history, you know that the real Harry Hopkins was a close advisor to FDR. He was emblematic of those unelected officials whose skill and discretion were essential for running the government. The real Hopkins is a hero of mine. Using his name is my own homage to him. However, using his name for the city manager character was too much for a local attorney, who knew his American history and also knew Iowa City’s Steve Atkins. This attorney respected the real Harry Hopkins and disliked the real Steve Atkins. And since my fictional Harry Hopkins must be the real Steve Atkins, I had insulted Hopkins.
So, how to turn facts into fiction, and still tell a true story?
In the months immediately after Eric Shaw’s death, in a few of the public meetings and heated debates, I had the same feeling I had had back when I was in the movie business, “There’s a story here.” But I also knew that I was certainly not the person to tell that story. In the years that followed, I talked to a few non-fiction writers I admired, suggesting that the drama of that event deserved an objective rendering. Somebody needed to see the proverbial forest, and most of us here could only see the trees. I had boxes of files, reams of documents, hundreds of newspaper clippings. Nobody was interested. Life goes on, right?
Time for another cliché about writing. As most writers know, there often comes a point in the writing process when characters start to shape their own story. When I finally decided to write a book about my Iowa City experience, I had a story I thought I was going to tell. It was not a story about Eric Shaw. His life and death did not belong to me. The story that “belonged” to me was what happened after he died, how I was both a player and a spectator in a year long public drama.
As a player in real life, I had disappointed myself. I should have been more insightful, more forceful in shaping the public debate as it was happening. ATHENS was to be my hindsight wisdom. As a spectator to those events, I had been fascinated by how misinformation as well as information shaped reality. Fiction and Fact? I saw how genuine grief and rage in a community was used to confirm old grievances and fuel new misperceptions.
I had characters, and a setting: Iowa City. Those elements had to have a “situation” around which a plot would develop. The situation? How does an educated and privileged community respond to a crisis which explodes without warning, but which seems to expose incompetence and actual malice in the very institutions which are supposed to protect that community. I thought I was ready to write.
What happened? First, I had to turn Iowa City into Athens. Sure, the geography is the same, some of the same people live in the factual and fictional towns, but Athens represents more than Iowa City. The characters represent more. You want to read my reality-based version of Iowa City? You should read (but I’m not letting you) the first draft of ATHENS. A second version softened a lot of my long repressed anger and disappointment about myself and my sense of estrangement from this town. Even on a good day, I’ve never been known for my sunny disposition.
Starting a third draft, I found my real story, but I had to add a death to make it happen. The early versions of ATHENS had only one victim of a police chase gone bad. That was the “public tragedy” I mention on the inside cover of the book. Finishing the second draft, I felt like something was missing. I had been too busy trying to get the details, the “facts,” of the original experience into a fictional form. I had a book, a novel, but I still did not have the story I wanted to write. I had a narrator whose daughter had died fifteen years earlier. My own daughter had just turned fifteen. And then it hit me. The story I wanted to tell, had been avoiding, was more than just a critique of a town’s response to a public tragedy. ATHENS was a story about private grief, and it took a lot of writing before the writer understood it. Imagine your worst nightmare, and put it into words.
Somebody else had to die in my story. A fifteen year old girl. And that girl’s father was added. I thought he would be a one chapter character, but the more I wrote the more important he became, both for the narrator and the reader, and that father’s story filled almost a hundred pages. And all the other characters were re-shaped by the father’s inclusion. A ripple effect. The town of Athens stayed the same. Based on Iowa City, but the key distinction, as every writer knows, is the difference between a story or character being based on facts and reality…or inspired by reality.
Based on versus inspired by---a literal relationship versus a symbolic relationship.
Athens is Iowa City, and not. Harry Hopkins is Steve Atkins, and not. Joe Holly is Larry Baker, and not. Al Baroli is Dean Thornberry, and not. Those characters do not exist without having real life inspirations, but those characters are not real.
My greatest satisfaction? Having an outside reader, somebody not from Iowa City, read the book and tell me, “I know somebody just like that.” Or, somebody involved in politics in a different college town, like Charlottesville, VA, tell me, “I’ve been to the same meetings you describe in your book.”
The moral in all this? Iowa City is unique, and not.
Causes Larry Baker Supports
Holt International Adoption Services
Harry Chapin Foundation
National Public Radio