a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

“I”

It’s a natural assumption, really, but it seems that when you write in the first person, people assume the character is you.

In my case, this isn’t helped by the fact that he’s also a writer working on a novel. For the record, he’s younger than me, has never lived in a large city (I’ve never lived in a small town), and is much more handsome. Not that that’s hard.

But as I write, I can’t shake the opinion that people are going to think that every thought Daniel Ferreira entertains is mine. This isn’t unreasonable. Many (most?) authors write stories to put forth a point they believe, essentially hiding behind their main character. Many novels, we learn, are autobiographical.

I’ve never cared for this, past a point. Sure everything I write is going to be informed by what I know and believe. But that’s just as true for any of the characters as the first-person one. As the song goes, I gotta be me.

But let me cite an example of what I try to avoid. Back when I lived in another city, there was a 20-something female there who wrote the entertainment column for the local indie paper, one of those little tabloidy things you get free in downtown book and music stores, but who aspired to write bigger and better things. She frequently wrote with some disparagement about her boyfriend, her She eventually moved to New York, the city which really seemed to be superior to all others to her. She eventually buttoned down and wrote her first novel. What was it about? A 20-something female who writes for the local indie paper in Philly and then gets dumped by her boyfriend, who’s described as lame, eventually moves to New York…

I don’t get the point of something like that. I don’t know why you write. Maybe you don’t write. Congratulations, you’re saner than me. But I write to live, at least vicariously, other lives I can’t live, or am not living. I enjoy researching and putting myself in the place of people whose values I don’t necessarily share or even approve of, or maybe partially share and partially approve of. But the last thing I want to do is write about myself. I’m not that interesting.

I won’t so far as to say I disapprove of being autobiographical. Certainly there have been a lot of interesting people worthy of writing an autobiographical novel. But it seems that it’s become what most writers of “literary fiction” (I hate that term, but until something better comes along I’ll use it) feel they must do. I think that limits us. When deciding on movies to see, I tend to gravitate towards ones whose premises and ideas I haven’t seen before. (This is increasingly rare.) I avoid sequels—even Godfather II didn’t do it for me, and I was delighted to see Francis Ford Coppola tell TMZ recently that they should have stopped after the first one. (Don’t bother telling me II was better. It wasn’t. It was overly-long and incoherent. And the last scene in GF I is just about the most perfect ending you can ask for in a movie. Does anyone even remember the last scene in II?) I also admire directors like William Wyler and Philip Kaufman and Jason Reitman because they don’t repeat themselves.

I know writers are often told to “write what they know,” and so they go autobiographical. What hogwash. Was Jules Verne ever 20,000 leagues under the sea? What did Mary Shelley know about galvanism?

The one disadvantage to this, obviously, is that it takes longer. It’s harder to become someone else and some days your brain just doesn’t want to do it. And there’s lots of research to do. And you take more wrong turns.

But it’s appealing to step outside one’s circumscribed world. That was a large part of what drew me to writing Welsey Shaw: I don’t want to write what I know, because I already know it. I’ve never lived in or near New York or even visited it all that much. I’ve never lived in Callicoon, the small town Daniel comes from, though I did visit it once I started the novel. I have become more interested in living in New York since I’ve worked on this, having become of the immense intellectual capital that is there, but I still think I’m a happily-transplanted West Coaster. I’ve never been as rich as Welsey or as poor as Daniel. More than that, though, is the fact that many of the things Daniel thinks are important I don’t. He’s more provincial than he thinks he is. (Well, hopefully I’m not, but this is of course a matter of opinion.) He’s less adventurous in many ways, never having been out of the U.S. or even his little nook of the Northeastern Atlantic Coast. He’s still living in the house he grew up in. He drives a Volvo. A gray one. I’d never do that!

And another thing: Daniel hates sushi ad raw beef. He really doesn’t have the adventurous palate that I do. I wouldn’t trust him to recommend a restaurant. And that’s an important thing.

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