A friend recently found out that I wrote fiction. Until my first novel, High Ground, was released last fall that had been my personal secret. “I don’t read fiction,” he said with a noncommittal shrug. “I read true stories.”
I had heard that before and I knew what he meant, but I had begun teaching myself to write fiction many years ago precisely because it allowed me to write about what was true.
I remember being a twenty-year-old newbie news stringer for a newspaper, sent to do an article on the aftermath of a fatal fire. My editor wanted me to call on the widow and his family. Get their point-of-view.
God. What the hell am I doing? Walking up this walk, on the worst day of someone else’s life and sticking my nose inside.
Maybe, I thought, I just wasn’t cut out for this. I hadn’t even met these people yet, and already I felt overwhelmed by their pain they must be going through. I thought I could do this.
Now I wondered why I wanted to.
It wasn’t my first time dealing with accidental death, even at such a young age. I had been among a small group of eager reporters who climbed the steep side of a mountain, pulling ourselves up hand-over-hand grabbing tree limbs to reach the site of a fatal passenger plane crash. We were the only news media who made it on scene. I was stunned by what I saw, but I handled the horror that was spread across a gash cut into the tree covered mountainside and I filed my reports. There was no one there alive, save the NTSB, police, medical people and others engaged in the investigation and retrieval.
But this. The next of kin were who I was going to meet and try to talk to. What kind of an unfeeling creep would do this? Knock on their door on a day like this. Uh, that would be me, today, I would be the kind of creep in question.
I knocked. They opened the door six inches.
“What do you want?”
“I’m a reporter,” I said. I told them I was looking for the family who had been in the fire that morning.
“What do you want?” They repeated, with a note of irritation. The door moved an inch toward me, toward closing.
“I want to know about the man who died,” I said. “Who he was, what his loss will mean to his family.”
“Let him in,” a woman’s voice said from farther in the house. I went in and sat with the man’s wife and family, as they told me who he was, how he died, how he would be missed. I listened, took notes and later wrote about this man, what his loss would mean to his friends and family.
His wife said the hardest part of the day, outside of learning her husband had died, was that the world just went right on about its business. As though nothing of real import had taken place. Without a notice. Until I knocked on their door and asked.
I didn’t write everything I saw and heard that day. Not without risking adding to this family’s pain. But over the next few years I began to wish that I could share some of what I saw and felt and surmised. Of course, back then we needed two sources for certain facts to be included. Can you imagine? Today you could write the story without sources, beyond “so-and-so posted (insert outrageous claim here) on his Facebook page” and so many news outlets would run with it. Sources? How quaint.
Shortly after, I began to try my hand at fiction, and wrote it badly. It’s harder than it looks. But I kept at it, and read the work of lots of people who were better at it. Still some of the exchanges from those days and even a character or two in High Ground had roots in that news copy I wrote way back when. It may be fiction, but it’s also truth to me.