By Jenny Ramaley
How did Gayle Forman arrive at this revelation about her shocking lack of moral fiber? Pittsburgh got her explanation on Friday night when the YA author and journalist spoke at the Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture Series: Black, White and Read all Over (see the Feb. 2011 blog about John Green’s Pittsburgh lecture). Her epiphany began when her young daughter asked her what she did for a living. Gayle explained that ‘mommy’ made up stories and invented characters to put in her books.
“Oh.” The daughter took a moment to absorb this information and, with all the clarity of childhood, summed up her mom’s rambling reply. “Mommy tells lies for her job.”
It’s a safe bet that most of us present in the small, intimate space of the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall were writers, both published and not, and this revelation created an instant, unspoken bond among us. Just as Gayle realized the truth of her daughter’s words, we realized that we, too, were liars.
Isn’t that what fiction is? Lies? Stories about people who don’t really exist, who haven’t really done any of the things the writer commits to paper. All lies . . . except with glimmers of truth. “Fiction is a lie that tells the truth,” Gayle said.
Which brings us to the thievery.
According to Ms. Forman, the entire world – family, friends, strangers – is ripe for pillage. Gayle explained that she is shameless, stealing experiences from others along with their quirks, gestures, and any other little things that pique her interest, picking a carcass as clean as a vulture. She asked the audience to share some of their odder experiences, and after a few did, she confirmed that she would probably steal the story about the drunk guy peeing his pants on the lawn – she had pre-warned us of her thieving ways, after all. These stolen moments are precious and worth stealing because they are the nuggets of truth that gird works of fiction.
But it’s not just other people’s experiences. Gayle also steals from her own. Her award-winning YA novel, If I Stay, was inspired from a tragic car accident where she lost four friends. Ten years later, the invented character of Mia formed from the mist of her memories, supported by the mom, dad and kid brother, who were inspired by the people she lost.
Gayle also admitted that her fiction isn’t totally driven by thievery. Three years after writing If I Stay, after the main characters of Mia and Adam refused to exit to her brain, Gayle waded into the blank slate of what happened to these characters. No longer having an actual life experience to draw from, the story of the sequel, Where She Went, grew from pure imagination. A much tougher slog.
Based on her two latest can’t-put-them-down teen novels, I’d say Gayle’s onto something good with her mix of lies, theft and nuggets of truth. My writer friend Kitty has a t-shirt emblazoned by the words, “Be nice to me or I’ll put you in my novel.” Gayle might want to pick up one of those.