Stranger Than Fiction

WE ALL KNOW the story of the journalist-turned-novelist, the Pete Dexters and Anna Quinlans out there who make it big with their fiction, leaving the newsroom behind to accept literary awards and go on Oprah.  It’s a dream of so many reporters that it’s become a cliché. The idea is that with enough free time and a little artistic inspiration anyone who can put words together can write a good novel.  It would be an insult if it weren’t absolutely true, and proven again and again.

But the novel, if you’re not J.K. Rowling, is no longer the pinnacle of American publishing.  Over the past decade, as the big houses have tightened their belts, non-fiction has become the genre of choice in New York.  It’s much easier to sell a non-fiction book, if only because editors believe there are readers interested in its subject, whatever that may be.  There’s a built-in audience there, whereas who knows who will buy this first novel. Self-help titles have been selling well for decades, and biographies, but with the success of The Liars Club and Into the Wild, two new genres presented themselves, and, typically, every New York house scrambled to sign anything resembling those bestsellers.  For a while in the mid-90s we were inundated with gritty and poetic memoirs (My Terrible Life, I call that book) and now we’re facing a flood of disaster narratives.

Here’s where I come in.  I’m a novelist, semi-high-falutin.  I’ve never been a journalist, never taken a journalism class, but three years ago I got myself deeply, irretrievably involved in a non-fiction project.

Through a series of coincidences–a picture in an old Life magazine, a job offer, a novel that happened to be set during that era–I had become interested in the Hartford Circus Fire, a local disaster that had taken place in 1944.  Basically, the big top of the Greatest Show on Earth burned down, killing 167 people. Because it had taken place during wartime, other, larger events had overshadowed the fire.  When I went to my public library to find a book on it–simply to feed my curiosity–they said they didn’t have one.

There wasn’t one, and I thought that was wrong.  In a few minutes the fire had changed thousands of lives.  And beyond that there was the weird spectacle of the event, the tent going up in flames while the screaming crowd ran out.

I began looking up old newspaper articles about the fire on microfilm, photocopying them at 25 cents a pop.  The more I found, the stranger the story became.  The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline so that it burned like a giant wick, dripping napalm.  There were mysteries as to the identity of the dead, and six people never found.  The pictures alone (rich black smoke pouring off the canvas, bodies of children lifted into Army trucks) were compelling.

And I began to find people around town who remembered the fire, people whose friends or relatives had been there.  I found survivors who refused to tell me their stories, and survivors who wouldn’t shut up about it.  But all of them–50 plus years after the fact–were still living with the fire.

I knew I had something big, a real one of a kind story, and I knew that it had to be told straight.  I also knew I didn’t have the skills to write the book I wanted to read.  The research required and the ultimate presentation of the material called for a responsible, seasoned journalist, one who really knew the city of Hartford.  I’d only been living there three years, and the only non-fiction I’d ever written were a couple of book reviews.  But at this point, I considered the fire my story.  It had become a challenge now, the question of whether I could write it.  I took it on partly because it seemed impossible.

Writing fiction is impossible, or at least it seems that way in the beginning. You don’t know your characters, you don’t know where your story’s going, you just sit down every day and dream and think and weigh the possibilities–what would this woman really do in this situation?–and scene by scene the story or the novel proceeds because you believe in it. You create and sustain the voice, you choose the form and the structure, you determine what the reader needs to see. There’s a degree of freedom in fiction writing that’s both thrilling and paralyzing, and when you become comfortable in the storytelling–when you know what’s going to happen well ahead of time, or see the logical consequences and how they play out down the road–then the book is possible and therefore dead.

Fiction, to be any good, has to be both surprising and inevitable–to the reader and to you.  It has to deliver the deepest mysteries of the human race, well past where simple psychology and sociology stop, way, way beyond what you as a writer are capable of understanding.  Fiction is charged with showing us the way we truly feel and who we truly are, and to do this you have to write better than you’re able to. When a book is good, you look back and say, where did I get that from, and you honestly don’t know.  It’s not mystical, just a level of sensitivity and awareness that comes from sitting at your machine for hours, concentrating hard while these strangers you’ve come to know more intimately and more honestly than you know yourself live their lives right in front of you.

That’s the challenge of fiction–finding what at first doesn’t seem to be there.  Writing a novel is a series of discoveries, a realization that these people’s lives are far deeper than you first imagined.  You delve into it and find things that even after having written the book you don’t understand how you found them.  It’s a kind of magic or acting, believing enough in characters so that their lives take on weight and extension.  If this doesn’t happen–if you go into a book and find only what you first thought was there–then the book is possible and therefore dead.

I took on The Circus Fire because it looked impossible from the outside. At the very least, I would have to suppress my instincts and learn a whole new set of skills, as well as the history of a city, of the circus, and of fire itself.

The question of the novelist-turned-journalist did well up inside me.  I’d seen Denis Johnson’s reporting on recent wars and David Foster Wallace’s essays, but, other than John Hersey way back in 1946, I couldn’t think of a novelist who decided to plunge headfirst into a booklength, objective non-fiction narrative–and a very straight one.  Because from the beginning, because of all the legends and tall tales around the fire, and the lack of a definitive telling, I had decided this would be wholly factual and plainly stated, a laying out of what actually happened that day, and the tough days after.

I came into the project completely naive, with an old-fashioned view of journalistic objectivity.  I was not going to be part of the book but a collector of facts and impartial observer. I was not going to shape the book into something stylish or make the sentences ring with my deathless poesy. The idea of creative non-fiction seemed (and seems) to me the worst of both worlds, with the author tossing gobs of emotionally charged rhetoric at whatever subject they’ve chosen.  There was no need to tart up the narrative with added emotion or pat melodrama; it was already there in abundance–too much of it, in fact.  And I didn’t (and don’t) buy that slippery idea of the reporter’s subjectivity compromising his or her ability to transmit the truth.  These things happened, and happened to these people, and I was going to tell their story, using their own words whenever possible, and do my best to stay out of the way.  Impossible, right?

So I was happy to have this impossible task.  At the beginning of a book, the book can be anything. It’s like a genie’s wish.  It’s only as you get into doing the book that it becomes narrower and narrower, the dreamy possibilities closing off.  So in the beginning I was thrilled.  With all the legwork I’d have to do, I could stay in this ideal, anything-can-happen state for a good year.

The first thing I did was nail down my paper sources.  I was lucky to be living in the state capital, so I went downtown to the Connecticut State Library and got a special collections I.D. I spent several months in the basement there, tracking down microfilm from the Courant, the defunct Times and all the smaller town newspapers of the era.  This was expensive, a problem I’d never encountered in researching fiction. The sheer number of documents I felt compelled to collect about the fire seemed obsessive, but I needed them all. I went to the Hartford Public Library and their special Hartford Collection, to the Connecticut Historical Society, to the West Hartford Jewish Historical Center, the ManchesterFireMuseum, and on and on, photocopying as I went, filling a shelf of numbered looseleaf binders.  I was working on a project.

But the newspaper accounts and the official police and fire investigations, for all their thousands of pages, left massive gaps.  The circus was barely present, and the families.  What I had so far was a sketchy outline of what happened that day, a view from the outside.  It was a point of view problem.  To get what that day felt like and sounded like and tasted like, I needed to pull in closer.  For that I needed the survivors.

Thanksgiving week, I put an ad in the Courant, asking for any information people had on the circus fire.  The first week I was inundated with calls, so many that we had to change our number. Half of them hadn’t gone to the circus that day, and wanted to tell me why.  The other half had been there, and I quickly put together a schedule to go interview them.

A year later I had several hundred hours of interviews to transcribe, around 10,000 pages of photocopied material, 250 photos of varying quality, and still had not written a word.  The research had become the project.  I’d driven all over New England to track down every survivor I could find. I’d flown out to Wisconsin to dig through the treasures of the CircusWorldMuseum, and then to Iowa to talk with the brother of the girl people believed was the famous Little Miss 1565.  I loved getting out of the house and into people’s lives–a luxury the fiction writer rarely has.  But, not having any journalism training, I didn’t know the classic hazard of having too many sources, and my taste for legwork insured I wouldn’t figure it out until it was too late.

In the end I literally had thousands of sources, a wealth of information, but no way to organize it.  And much of the information was contradictory.  Many of the survivors were small children at the time of the fire, and their memories had melded with things they’d heard after the fact. Others were now in their 90s, and could remember only fragments.

I chose to organize the material in the simplest way–something I would never even contemplate in fiction–chronologically.  The difficulty with this is that there was no hard and fast timeline of events.  I would have to piece it together by myself, deducing it from the mountain of information I had, corroborating it, cross-referencing to make sure.  This sounds easy, if painstaking, but physically it was nearly impossible.  I had so many documents from so many sources (and in so many forms) that to have all of the information available to me meant clearing all the furniture out of my office and installing card tables.  I laid everything out in color-coded folders, moving pieces from one to the other as I verified or eliminated possibilities.

In fiction, you have total control of your material.  You follow wherever the developing action leads, yes, but at any time you can veer away or go deeper, stop, change, backtrack, run two lines on top of each other.  The burden and freedom of plotting or sequencing the story is all yours.  In writing The Circus Fire, because of the structure I’d chosen (been forced to choose, practically), the material had total control over me.  There were certain events and certain information the reader had to see (a previous fire naturally had to be discussed in some detail, as did the treatment of the burn victims), and these had to be fitted, proportionally, into the overall timeline. And there were major and minor questions I had to answer for the reader (a concern in fiction that is generally taken care of by your choice of point of view; what’s important to the character is generally important to the reader).  What at first seemed impossible, or all possibility, now seemed necessary, even mandatory.  The choices I enjoyed as a fiction writer had been taken away by my basic decisions.

The two greatest tools the fiction writer has are imagination and point of view, the ability, at any time, to make stuff up and then make the reader see the world through a character’s eyes.  In this straight (okay, square) non-fiction, I’d given up these tools.  I’d also decided to leave the sentences flat and simple, point A to point B, so I only had a rudimentary language.  I was relying on accuracy and attention to detail, but I had so much detail that it was overwhelming the story.

I had also made the fatal mistake of believing that, since this had actually happened, the reader would make an extra effort to understand or just appreciate all the small details–that they would be hungry for the details the way I was. I thought that the reader, like someone reading the newspaper, wouldn’t need to catch every little thing, that they’d just let it wash over them on a first read.  In fiction a standard tactic is to make your problem as an author the character’s problem.  If you don’t know how to get lots of information across, you show that scene from the point of view of someone who desperately needs to process all this new information (say, a new guy on his first day in Vietnam, or someone on death row seeing the lethal injection gurney for the first time), and in that way it’s all charged and necessary instead of just clutter.  Without POV to justify all the detail, I ended up with drifts and snags of dead facts, and even in revision I couldn’t get enough of it out of the book.

My scene-setting I was happy enough with–choosing what to show the reader–but in many cases I had no transitions, no connective tissue to elegantly move the reader on.  In fiction, I could have easily made things up to cover these gaps, but here I felt obliged not to do that.  I decided to go with hard-point transitions (Meanwhile, on the other side of the tent . . .) that would make me cringe in fiction.  It fit, though, with my conceit not to rely on the seamless and beautiful surface that I think too many writers see as an end in itself, and ultimately I think it imitates–in a good if sometimes annoying way–the confusion of the event.

The writing took only a few months, and was some of the most difficult and boring writing I’ve ever done.  All the discoveries, for me, took place during the research.  The writing was just fitting the thousands of puzzle pieces together in the correct order, and because I’d worked hard nailing down the timeline, that order was right in front of me.  I was heartened, because I was banging out 5 or 6 pages a day, and because the prose was the unadorned kind I wanted to write,  but there was something mechanical about the process I didn’t like, a fill-in-the-blanks feeling I never have with fiction.  The form I’d built for myself was too rigid, my own guidelines too stringent, or maybe I was too used to the freedom of fiction, the way it demands you follow the hints in the words, leads you places you didn’t expect.  Non-fiction seemed much harder to me.

Having had to rein in my natural inclination to fabricate and overstate, I must say the jump from journalism to fiction makes sense to me–the move from restriction to freedom.  I also think I was lucky coming to non-fiction from my position as a novelist. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for someone who’d escaped that straitjacket of old-school objectivity to strap it back on again (which may explain why so few non-fiction books are written in this style, no matter how honest and accurate it can be).

I’m glad I wrote the book though.  Survivors come to my readings and thank me for getting their story between covers, and I feel connected to the city in a way I never thought possible.  People ask if I’d do it again, and I say no.  And then I say maybe, if the right subject catches my interest.  Not for a while, I say.  I don’t know. We’ll see.  And inside I’m thinking, not in a million years.  Not if you paid me a million dollars.

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