Author Zadie Smith, when asked about including autobiographical content in fiction, said: “When you know writers very well — I have a lot of good writer friends — Writer X could set a book on the moon and it could all be monkeys, but I can read it and know it’s about his wife. It’s always intimate. But the strange thing about it too is that even if you try to write quite close to life, fiction has its own logic. It’s always sorting things, it’s always changing things. When writers say, ‘It’s not me, it’s not me,’ they are telling the truth.”
Since publishing my novel, the main question I’ve gotten is whether the story is autobiographical, or which parts really happened to me. Some people have asked my mom why she did the things that Hannah’s mom does in the story, which weren’t things that my mom ever did. Book Smarts and Tender Hearts isn’t an autobiography. I wouldn’t even call it autobiographical fiction. Hannah is better at school, a lot more self-aware, and way cooler than I was as a teenager. Georgia, Hannah’s mom, isn’t my mom. As I was writing Georgia, I actually worried that she was turning too much into me and that she wouldn’t be believable as a mom, since I don’t have kids. A lot of things about Hannah and her story were inspired by my life – I was a queer, fat teenager growing up in Salem, and my grandma did have Alzheimer’s – but most of the actions are made up. I didn’t get to spend the time with my grandma near the end of her life that Hannah does, but I wish I had. I was older than Hannah when my grandma moved into an Alzheimer’s care center, and I had already moved away.
It’s interesting to me that so many people are sure that Hannah is me, because I feel like all the characters are me in some ways. I made art and zines and had a million crushes like Corey, and I can be self-centered like Liz and aggressively opinionated like Paula. I guess it’s because Hannah is the narrator of the story, and because she’s fat with frizzy hair like me, that’s who people assume I’m telling my story through. But I would never do a lot of the things Hannah does in the story, from covering French fries with ketchup to being able to keep such a huge crush a secret.
When I’m reading, I do wonder sometimes what parts the author drew from their life. And I probably would wonder that more if I were reading a book written by someone I knew – is reading this book teaching me more about my friend? At first, I was kind of offended when people asked this, like they were saying I wasn’t creative enough to make up a whole story. But so many people have asked me that it must just be a natural leap to make.
Maybe people are asking if the feelings in the book are true. One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Toni Morrison, who famously said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I grew up queer and fat in a town that didn’t value either of those things, and I wanted to see my feelings in a story. I couldn’t find one, so I wrote it. I would say that the feelings are the truest things in the story. Maybe, when people ask if the story is real, they’re saying it is believable and that the emotions resonate enough that they feel true. I hope so, anyway.
I can’t control how people interpret the story. That’s something cool about books – how they change depending on who’s reading them, and how everyone sees stories differently. In the end, all I want is for people to read my book, and I would love for readers to connect with Hannah and the other characters, and to find true feelings in the story. Really, what more could I ask for?
I like cats, feminism, queers, making things and writing, apparently.