by J.D. Rhoades
A good friend and colleague of mine passed away last week at the age of
83. He was a fascinating guy: a veteran of World War II and Vietnam who
retired a full Colonel from the Air Force after 32 years in. Instead of
retiring and playing golf, he decided to go to law school.
The more I remembered about him, the more I kept thinking, "this guy’s
life would have made a hell of a book. Come to think of it, he’d make
a hell of a character."
of being a writer. Everything becomes potential material. You start
thinking of everything you see as grist for the mill. My usual answer
to the perennial "where do you get your ideas" question is: everywhere.
But it gets a tad problematic when your
"grist" involves real stories, of real people, and you use those
stories as the springboard for fiction.
As a practicing
lawyer in a small town in North Carolina, I see a lot of tragic things.
Some of the things I see really bug me. They stick in my mind. And when
something gets stuck in my mind, the only way to dislodge it and put it
someplace where it doesn’t haunt me (at least not as badly) is to put
it on the page.
Obviously, it wouldn’t be ethical for me as an attorney to do a roman a clef, an exact
re-telling of a story with only the names changed, but there are some
situations that are common enough–and tragic enough–that they get
woven into my stories. The most obvious example is Jack Keller, the
protagonist of my first three novels. Jack’s a combat veteran with
PTSD. Sometimes he has, shall we say, anger management issues. He has
flashbacks. He’s a walking time bomb who’s trying real hard not to be.
Now, Jack’s story is not specifically tied to any one veteran I know.
But living in a town that’s become a bedroom community for one of the
nations’ largest military bases, and working in the court system, I’ve
seen a lot of former soldiers with PTSD over the years. And,
unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot more. One even made the national news
not too long ago when former Army medic Joseph Patrick Dwyer, who first
became famous when the papers published a photo of him carrying a terrified Iraqi child away
from a firefight, died in Pinehurst of an apparent overdose of the
inhalants he’d been huffing to make the pain go away.
That’s a haunting story, a story that cries out to be told. But
when you use fiction to tell a story like that, where does telling
something important end and exploitation begin?
It cuts even closer to home when the stories you’re telling are
grounded in your own life story. Pat Conroy, for example, reportedly
outraged his family with his portrayals of abusive fathers and
dysfunctional families in THE GREAT SANTINI and THE PRINCE OF TIDES.
Conroy’s sister reportedly refused to speak to him for years after the
publication of PRINCE OF TIDES, but his father, a former Marine pilot,
apparently developed enough of a sense of humor over the years to begin
signing copies of Conroy’s books as "Donald Conroy–The Great
Santini." Most of us don’t expose our family’s secrets to the extent
Conroy has, but I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of a friend or
family member asking "is that supposed to be [name of someone you
know]?" or worse "Is that supposed to be me?" It’s even worse when the
answer is "yes."
So let me know your
thoughts. What are the ethics of using real tragedy as story material?
How much real life is too much? And how do YOU answer the question "is
that supposed to be me?"