I was most intrigued by the entries in the second category. These always started with an observation of some sort – a woman on the tram, for example, or the expression on a friend’s face – and then quickly turned into a fabrication. An example: On October 30, 1911, Kafka wrote about his reputedly delicate intestinal tract, noting that “for once I feel my stomach is healthy.”
In the following sentence, Kafka slides towards invention. He imagines himself at the butcher shop, stuffing “long slices of unbitten rib meat into my mouth”, eating “completely empty filthy delicatessens” and having “candy…poured into me like hail from their tin cans. White”. Not only was I captivated by how he suddenly immersed himself in his invented experiment, but I was also quietly enthusiastic about the idea of encroaching on Kafka’s inner life.
I became a journalist, and for four decades I stuck to Kafka’s first category: pure observation. This intriguing second category was strictly prohibited. There could be no leaks in the “what if” of a story.
Then, five years ago, my daughter and I were on a bike trip, and one night at dinner, one of the guides described a previous guest who had been particularly problematic. Our guide told the story in just two or three sentences, but it was so evocative that my daughter turned to me and said what I was thinking: “It’s a novel.”
I spent the next three years, on and off, spinning a book-length story out of that worn-out anecdote. “The boys», my first novel, after six books of non-fiction and hundreds of articles for the New York Times, is the product of the license I granted myself — to invent stuff.
Even now, having released my novel to the world, I find that a journalist’s fact-respecting mindset can be hard to shake. A friend came over for dinner recently. She had just read the novel and was eager to discuss the plot, the characters, their motivations, their psychological makeup. I started to feel uneasy, responsible for his investment in people who didn’t exist. I had a sudden urge to apologize to her, to admit that I had, like Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair and other journalists who violated public trust with their fabricated stories, made up these people and everything about them.
For a journalist, turning to fiction is certainly liberating, and many have made the transition smoothly. Anna Quindlen is a good example. Geraldine Brooks is another. But writing fiction can also be crippling for a journalist. We are tyrannized by what is true but also protected by it. The closed fist of facts is a kind of refuge. When given freedom of fiction, and with it what feels like an endless number of directions a story can take, a reporter can lose control and derail, in overly flowery language, absurd twists, a cast of hundreds devoid of nuance.
I found myself particularly sensitive to the temptation to go too far. The topics I’ve covered as a reporter have mostly lacked inherent suspense. I haven’t written a true crime per se, nor chronicled a courtroom drama. It is not easy to bring narrative tension to a story about, for example, the origins of the Internet or the risk of falls in the elderly. But that’s the part of the challenge I enjoyed the most: how can I make something interesting out of the history of a famous pianist’s beloved instrument, or 150 years in life of a house in Germany, while being limited by the facts? Or how do you make these topics interesting enough to compel people to want to know what happens next?
Yet, perhaps paradoxically, my decades as a journalist have made me more sober as a fiction writer, not less. In other words, I find more similarities than differences between writing fiction and non-fiction. In both cases, the choice of language, images and metaphors is as important as the rhythm and the scenario. The only key difference is this journey into the “what if?”
Time and time again while writing “The Boys,” I thought about Kafka’s second category – the move from observation to invention. My visit, during my husband’s college reunion in Philadelphia, to a museum of medical oddities became the unusual venue for a wedding. A single derailleur cable found snapped in half on a bike ride I took in Italy turned into something more sinister. My terrifying experience in the early weeks of the pandemic of seeing a man cough as he bent over to examine bok choy at the grocery store turned into a scene that drives my protagonist’s story forward.
And how could I help but venture into the misguided terrain of linguistic Febreze, cartoon villains, and outrageous plots? Just like when I research a non-fiction story, I did the heavy lifting first, then sat down to write. I researched the psychological condition known as the birthday reaction, in which a birthday triggers feelings rooted in childhood trauma. I went to a restaurant with tabletop jukeboxes; I scouted a house in Philadelphia that I thought would be perfect for my main characters, then asked the owners, whom I had never met, to give a tour. I walked through the exhibition hall of the Mütter Museum, the museum of medical oddities. I know that kind of basic research is something novelists do all the time, but it felt especially important with this, my first attempt at fiction.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my years of writing nonfiction is to choose wisely, to only include details and quotes that advance a story or illuminate a larger point. Back when the movies came out on DVD, I studied discussions about deleted scenes, trying to understand how a director decides what to cut. Darlings get killed left and right as movies are made, not because the scenes aren’t good, but because their service to the story is weak or has been done elsewhere.
When I write non-fiction – whether it’s 1,500 words or 50,000 – I constantly struggle with this question: how does each detail or quote serve the story? With fiction, the task is doubly demanding: not only must your words serve the narrative, but you must always be aware of your characters and their place in the story. It seems obvious, but once released, journalists risk losing sight of this simple rule.
After that brief moment of panic over dinner with my friend, I relaxed into acknowledging that my characters had become as real to me while writing the book as they were to her now. And in a way, they were more real to me than any I had written about as a journalist. There’s so much I can know about people who actually exist. When it comes to those of my own invention, I am omniscient. It’s an intoxicating feeling, sure to keep many novelists coming back for more.