Real Life in Fiction – Guest Post by Pam Jenoff, author of “Almost Home”

Thanks to Pam for joining us today! She is also offering a copy of “Almost Home” to one reader with a US mailing address.  Please fill out the form below to enter.

“How much of it is real?” is one of the things readers most often want to know about my novels.  I must confess, it is a question that always makes me cringe.  The issue first arose with my debut novel, THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL, set in Poland during World War II.  There were a few historical events underpinning the book – the fact that there had been a Jewish resistance movement in Krakow and that they had bombed a café, even an actual reference to a heroic pharmacist who had helped the Jews in the ghetto.  But the story itself and all of the characters were fictitious.  And since the book came out on the heels of a publishing scandal involving a certain purported memoir that proved to be partially fabricated, so I was doubly paranoid about making no claims that the story was true.  Every time a publicist or anyone else described my novel as, “based in part on a true story,” I crossed it out and wrote, “inspired in part by actual events.”

The questions have intensified with my third novel, ALMOST HOME, and the curiosity seems fair – after all, the protagonist Jordan went to Cambridge and worked for the State Department as I did.  Family and friends are perhaps the most persistent, trying to identify bits of me in every page.  “Do you have a tattoo?” my brother called recently to inquire, after reading that Jordan had gotten one.  I assured him that I do not.

So when people ask how much of a book is real, my unwavering answer is, “It’s all fiction.”  The truth, of course, is a little grayer than that.  My own experiences inevitably influence my work.  The places I’ve lived and people I’ve known dance in my head as I write.  So Krysia’s house to which Emma fled in THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL looks a lot like my house in Poland, and many of the characters in that book, while wholly fictitious in their personalities and actions, are reminiscent of some of the people I knew when I lived there.  Likewise, little snippets and anecdotes from my life seem to creep into my work.  Marta from THE DIPLOMAT’S WIFE plays a game of cards and quotes her grandmother as saying “lucky in cards, unlucky in love,” which was something my grandmother used to say. Jordan in ALMOST HOME shares my love of jarred pesto sauce and images England as portrayed in Disney films.  You get the idea.

But that doesn’t make the story “true.”  I think that real life makes for terrible plot but it makes for wonderful setting.  So I try to let the places and experiences that have affected me so profoundly populate and color the world I am writing about as kind of a tribute to them, rather than drive the story itself.  I also think the themes of a book like ALMOST HOME, such as love and loss and coming to terms with the past, are very “real” to me, and I hope readers will feel the same.

I am curious, though:  why are readers so interested in stories that are real?  Does it make a book more compelling or readable?  Let me know your thoughts!

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6 comments to Real Life in Fiction – Guest Post by Pam Jenoff, author of “Almost Home”

  • Kay

    Pam, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I enjoyed your post. I must confess that though I have all 3 of your books here at my house, I haven’t started them yet. I totally intend to, but you know how it is. I’ll get to them, trust me. As to your question, I wonder if part of it is the fact that some parts of your life do mirror or reflect the setting or other parts of your books. Also, there are a lot of books out there now that seem to be quasi-non-fiction. My book group discussed this recently when we read David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife. It was fiction, but based in part on actual events. Semi-fiction. Maybe this contributes to it? Maybe not. In any case, I appreciate the chance to comment. Best of luck to you in your endeavors.

  • Thanks for the contest and the insight

  • Jennifer

    I think a lot of people read historical fiction like The Kommadants Girl and the Diplomat’s Wife and it can become easy to believe that parts of the books could be true. Like you said about the cafe bombing. People want to know how much of this really happened. Another example the book My Enemy’s Cradle was based on true events. When I read it it was a concept I found unimagionable. But it had happened. The characters aren’t real, but the story absolutely did happen. This isn’t always taught in our history classes and books like this makes us wonder what else we weren’t taught. Sometimes a really good historical fiction will inspire someone to go research something and learn more about it. I think it opens the mind to more possibilities.

  • Entered for the giveaway – I hope I win. This book sounds really interesting to me! I found this discussion to be really interesting. As an aspiring writer of sorts, I just always wonder where the story comes from. I’m really interested in story-telling and always love to hear about the motivations and inspirations that led to the creation of a particular story. However, sometimes hearing such things can ruin a story for me.

  • Hmm, what an interesting post and question. I like to know what’s real in historical fiction, just so I can add it to the little historical database inside my head. I’ve gotten a lot of my information about history from hist fic books. That being said, it doesn’t matter to me whether something actually happened or not, in terms of my enjoyment of books.

  • When I read historical fiction I like to know what’s true and what isn’t just so I can keep my facts straight. I don’t need truth to enjoy a story a based on a historical fact or just set in the past.