Writing an Autobiographical Novel
Updated: May 20, 2021
You might have seen my previous two books ‘How to Catch a Mole’ or ‘Seed to Dust’ described by my publisher or in reviews as Autobiographical, or Narrative Non-fiction, or Literary Non-fiction. But are they really?
In this blog I want to talk about how I write this kind of work.
The two books are above all stories, they have a beginning, a middle and an end - there is a particular story to tell. As it happens they are both love stories. They are stories of the same life, they overlap in time but they are completely different tales from each other.
Writing this kind of work is often about deciding what to leave out, what to say and how to say it. The things that happen should on the whole be truthful, but when and where and who they happened too can be a little more flexible. The work needs to be intrinsically honest, just as a work of fiction does, but if you want a true story to be readable or meaningful in any way, then you need to leave some things out, particularly boring things, that are irrelevant to the story you want to tell. But when you do that you also have to start messing with timelines, because time telescopes where events and characters have been removed.
Things might need to be written out of sequence so that relationships between people and between events are not fragmented and spread all over the place as they are in 'real life'. A pure biography would not do this, it would be a historically accurate telling of the sequence of events between point A and point B and for me, a person who is essentially interested in rhythm and poetry, words and light and shade, it would be horribly boring both to write and to read. There are two kinds of reading, one type is to take you out of yourself and experience a different life, the other is to search for facts and I am all about the first kind.
I approach this work much as one might approach the telling of a tale of something that happened to you, as if sitting around the camp fire; I’m going to tell you the tale of when ‘this happened to me’. But beyond that, I want to tell you is the tale of what I learned from this event, or how it changed me and so some things irrelevant to that particular story are left out and some things are moved from one place to another so the whole thing makes sense and the story can unfold in a logical way with events that build on what happened previously instead of jumping backward and forward in time.
Personalities change over time in response to events and so the character at the end is not the same character you started with. That for me is the essence and purpose of story telling.
In How to Catch a Mole I wanted to tell a story about being isolated, an outsider alone in nature for a long period of time, through the seasons and years, and I particularly wanted to write about the awakening of a deep and abiding spiritual life in response to that. The spiritual awaking was the core thing. I wanted to make it interesting on another level with lots of nuggets of information about, in this instance the life of moles and the weird story of how to catch them, these were kind of anchors to bring the reader back to a 'safe place'. I also illustrated each section with a piece of poetry whose function was to show something of the inner life. Facts and events and feelings kind of ran through the work.
I was clear that I did not want to make a pure memoir, or a nature book, I have lived in nature but have not studied the literture on it, I am not a collector of facts, or anything else really. I wanted to write something about being a human, about resilience and growth and love, so the events and facts that supported this particular story were brought into focus and irrelevances to those parts of the story were pushed back or left out completely. Had I put them in it could have become something about rural homelessness or child abuse. I did not want to do this, there is enough of that kind of stuff out there already and ‘poverty porn’, or ‘misery memoir’ does not appeal to me. Creativity can spring from neurosis, anxiety and fear or it can spring from a deep sense of connectedness and love, I am more driven by the latter, I wanted to tell a positive story that added more love and pleasure to the world along with a few pointers about how to find it. The love and pleasure found through self-awareness are the true ‘Mole’ of the title and that is the essence of the story, that is the mole I was hunting for and caught.
So the story and the structure are everything. There is no fiction in the book as far as I can remember I don’t think in the end I made anything up out of thin air. I did wonder about whether I would need to do this in order to make it flow and be enjoyable to read but was resistant - the sheer fact of organising the events and expressing some of them with more clarity than others was enough in the end.
So the question remains about what to call this kind of work. The works of Knausgard and Proust are shelved in the fiction categories as are Kerouak's 'On the Road' and 'Dharma Bums' and Bukowski's 'Post Office' and Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' - all of them Autobiographical novels. I think in America they understand this kind of work more than they do in the UK. My work is usually shelved in ‘Nature’ or ‘Autobiography’ neither of which are ideal, my books are certainly not nature writing and anybody who goes there looking for it may well be disappointed, the straight autobiography of a gardener or a molecatcher would be of limited interest perhaps, but the books have to go somewhere. I have been told they are ‘self-help’ books but don’t fit there at all comfortably either. I like the word ‘Autofiction’ this is a category that has been very popular in France for many years, stories about the author and their search for meaning or truth rather than biographical data. The writing of the book itself may appear in the book and I feel this may make appearance in the next book.
The first use of the word occurred in a blurb on the back of the French novelist Serge Doubrovsky’s book Fils in the late 1970s:
‘Autobiography? No, that is a privilege reserved for the important people of this world, at the end of their lives, in a refined style. Fiction, of events and facts strictly real; autofiction, if you will, to have entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, outside of the wisdom and the syntax of the novel, traditional or new. Interactions, threads of words, alliterations, assonances, dissonances, writing before or after literature, concrete, as we say, music.’
As for the book I am writing at the moment, it most decidedly is autofiction. It’s a new story that begins precisely where the last one ended but timescales are seriously and obviously distorted and it has some aspects of a time travel. I’m 20,000 words in and things are developing well. I need a bit of a break now while it all percolates through and I have some research to do, so days are spent with about 40 minutes of yoga in the morning then about an hour or two writing and then lots of reading and walking and in the evenings chatting to Kate about how our work is going. She has just submitted to her publisher the MS of a sequel to her very first novel, so she is feeling light and tired and wanting to rest and have fun. That is how submission gets you, there is fear and relief to deal with and a sense of ending and emptiness, but also feeling that you need to take advantage of the break before the editing starts.
Please feel free to leave comments or to ask questions if you have any.