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August 10, 2010


Posted by Dana

In today's guest post, author Ghita Schwarz talks about the delicate balance of using fact to create fiction.  I love her comment about some things that happen in real life being too unbelieveable to include as I think we've all had those moments!

Displaced-Persons-Schwarz-Ghita-9780061881909.jpgThe Right Amount of Butter
My mother just finished reading my first novel, DISPLACED PERSONS. She called me up and said, “I know it’s fiction, but I really liked the part with my cousin and aunt.” It is fiction, I told her. All made up. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental, etc. But of course she knows better. While the novel’s plot does not correspond exactly to actual events in my parents’ history, and while the two families in the book do not mirror my own family of origin, there are plenty of characters that those who know me may recognize from real life.

One of the things I have been looking forward to most about publishing DISPLACED PERSONS is talking to readers, and I expect that some readers will want to know whether the novel springs from true events. My book portrays Jewish men and women who meet in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the liberation of Europe and eventually immigrate to the United States. Friends who have read it get specific about the biographical questions: Didn’t my father have a surviving brother? (Yes, and they were very close, but that relationship is not portrayed in the novel.) Did my mother become a social worker? (No, but she did work for a time in the gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

My book does spring in part from family stories and experiences, so I try to answer these questions as fully as I can. I tried to weave certain stories I knew into a coherent novel whose plot points did not occur in real life but whose characters, I hope, authentically reflect real human conflicts and hopes. The process of transforming fact into fiction is a little like baking a cake from an unwritten recipe: you never really know if you’re using the right amount of butter. Real life is frequently boring and monotonous, and to keep a reader interested, a writer must give enough detail to convince, but not so much that a story gets bogged down in trivia.  

At the same time, some amazing things that happen in real life are simply not convincing in fiction, even if they really did occur. For example, my mother’s cousin, disguised in an Italian officer’s uniform, recognized my mother’s aunt – a distant non-blood relative of his – after the war, and helped smuggle her into the Allied Zones in Germany. I borrowed (ok, stole) that story from my mother’s tales, but in the novel, that meeting occurs between two strangers.  I changed the nature of that meeting first and foremost because I wanted to use that event to depict the bonds that sprung up among total strangers who survived. But second, the actual circumstances surrounding my relatives’ meeting in real life seemed to me too coincidental to be persuasive.   

For me, the most important themes of the book have less to do with actual events than they do with the way people memorialize their experiences, and how their memories are crucial to their identities as parents, brothers, friends, and Americans. The process of remembering and memorializing true events is itself an act of imagination and creativity, an act that all of us engage in every day. My hope is that these themes of memory and identity can resonate with readers who come to fiction, in part, to connect with characters whose worlds may be strange and different, but whose fears and dreams ring true. 

-- Ghita Schwarz, author (Check out the video on YouTube!)