Monday, June 16, 2014

"Fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies..."

I just finished reading one of those books that you wish would never end--that book was Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton.

It was inspiring for another reason, too--the novel has a unique method of approach: it takes a real-life town--Cooperstown, New York--and turns it into a magical alter-ego: the fictitious Templeton, New York. Instead of  a pedestrian, run-of-the-mill upstate town that most of us would take for granted, Groff creates a treasure trove of ghosts, lake monsters, and violent family histories for the main character, Wilhelmina (aka Willie), to discover.

Fictional Templeton map, snapped
from Monsters book preview at Amazon
It's a refreshing and interesting approach--a happy medium between creating an entirely new universe (as in some fantasy or sci fi stories) and remaining rigidly faithful to the truth (like a historical biography or a naturalistic period novel). For example, Groff keeps some of the recognizable features of Cooperstown--the family seat of a great American writer, and the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Lake Otsego--but she gives them all a twist. She turns James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, into Jacob Franklin Temple, whose family is the town's namesake; she includes the Hall of Fame as is, but incorporates its 1936 inauguration into the plot with a black twist; and Glimmerglass becomes the alternate name of the lake, complete with a Nessie-like monster named Glimmey. She also takes the characters from some of Fennimore Cooper's fiction and turns them into part of Willie's family history: Marmaduke Temple, Natty Bumppo, and Remarkable Pettibones (although Groff calls her Prettybones in this version).

It's also an interesting solution to a common writer's problem--you want to write about a place, time, or subject dear to your heart, but when you begin to faithfully set it down, it suddenly becomes dull and boring. Or, you begin to find other possibilities more interesting.

Real-life Cooperstown map,
snapped from Google Maps
In my Kindle edition, the author's note explains that this is exactly what happened to Groff when she first set out to write the novel. She says she first started reading as much as she could about Fenimore Cooper, because he's so close to the history of the town, and she wanted to stick to that, but:
"...a curious thing happened: the more I knew, the more the facts drifted from their moorings. They began shaping themselves into stories in my head, taking over. Dates switched, babies were born who never actually existed, historical figures grew new personalities and began to do frightening things. I slowly began to notice that I wasn't writing about Cooperstown anymore, but rather a slantwise version of the original."
She then returned to reading Fenimore Cooper and noticed that in his novel, The Pioneers, he reinvented his town as "Templeton, New York," thus granting her a kind of permission to do the same. Groff says: "I relaxed and followed his lead." And in the end, she discovered that "...fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies."

So, reread your favorite author, or take inspiration from a history book, a Golden Classic, or even something as exotic as a grimoire--and don't be afraid to steal, borrow, or completely rearrange material. You never know what could take shape.

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