A writer who wants to write about family goes up against many of the same problems as any writer of historical fiction. Of course, sometimes the two overlap, as in Love and Lament, a historical novel with origins in family lore. The question in either case is how much do we draw from real life and how much do we invent. There’s no simple formula; every writer makes his or her own way through the story. What is specific, though, to family-based fiction is that nagging doubt about creating characters and scenes that are either uncomfortably close to reality or might be judged “inaccurate.” Fiction about historical figures can run the same risk, only the critics are not generally family members.
So, at what point do we say that the demands of art, for some particular story, require that we move on through that intersection of nonfiction and fiction, feeling all the while like grave robbers, indecent, but still obsessed with unearthing something from the past that no one but us could ever find, something beautiful and true that we can brush off and give to the world (or at least a few readers) and say, here, take a look at this—isn’t it amazing?
I wish I had an answer. I think we have to trust that when we’re on to something rich in the fictional world, when we’re mining a vein, then it’s not only okay, it’s required of us as serious writers that we at least pursue it where it leads us and see if we can find in it something good and true, something worth giving to other people. If we’re only gossiping or presenting lurid details simply to shock and scandalize—in other words, to call attention to ourselves—we might reconsider our material. But if we’re using the material with care, trying to create characters with the dignity and depth they deserve, then we should be grateful for what we’ve been given.