Last month I heard writer Adam Johnson (The Orphan Master’s Son; Fortune Smiles) speak about his writing with San Francisco Chronicle book critic John McMurtrie. Listening to Johnson, an extraordinary storyteller, the thought occurred to me that maybe there was a bit of a fabricator, a fictionalizer in him as he shared his background – just a wee bit anyway. His father worked at a zoo and to hear Johnson tell it, they had another kind of zoo at home, a collection of all the unwanted creatures that people dropped off outside the gates of the zoo at night. These were not abandoned puppies and kittens, but rather amazingly rare and ridiculous animals. When recounting his childhood growing up amid this menagerie of wild and wonderful, nearly mythical creatures, Johnson’s past seemed to take on a life of its own. He said, “to tell a story was just to hold someone gripped,” and he seemed to delight in doing just that as he added layer upon layer to his story of growing up with a father who held not just the keys to a zoo, but the keys to everything. He said a writer can take control of the narrative, but after a while it seemed as though the narrative had wrestled control from him – he was as gripped by the story he was telling as we were.
I am a book groupie, and over the years I have listened to the stories of dozens and dozens of writers. I am always a little in awe of the way reality and fiction seem to meld as they begin to speak. There’s a glint in the eye, a kind of conspiratorial sharing of the embellished detail or two that seems just a bit past the point of believability. But maybe all stories of the past are like that – remembered and rehearsed and retold until they become larger than life.
I wonder how many of my memories of non-descript, ordinary days (like today for example, when I am still in my sweats at 2:00 in the afternoon, having done nothing but read the Sunday paper and take a short walk) over time become polished into bigger and better versions of themselves, and I in turn become a bigger, better, funnier, more interesting version of myself. Hmmm….