How Fact and Fiction Belong Together

Like anyone who spends his days working as a journalist and his nights as a fiction writer, I sometimes wonder which of these diametrically opposed professions, if either, I’m better suited for. More often, though, I wonder whether it’s possible to be one without being the other.

Because just as fantasy needs one foot in reality to give it context, the real world needs an eye on the stars to make us yearn for something more. That’s why, at least for me, fact and fiction have always been entwined, like two seemingly unsuited lovers who can’t survive without one another.

After all, what is a great novel if not a safe yet compelling roadmap through the dangers that may lay in wait in our actual lives? The best stories, we hope, are dress rehearsals for the great adventures ahead. And even if we don’t like to think it, they are also glimpses of the strength and humanity we will need when our lives don’t turn out as planned and the people we love go away.

As a kid in the early 1970s, it was The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, and not a textbook or bible, that filled me with questions about faith and suffering, ultimately leading me to wonder, Is there a single source of evil and how the hell do I avoid its wrath? Later, Pat Conroy’s epic The Prince of Tides and, a decade later, his equally epic Beach Music helped me believe there was a way to navigate through the stickiest of family dysfunction. As an adult, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner showed me you could atone for mistakes, Haruki Murakami’s Pinball, 1973 convinced me that others also felt adrift in a life lacking purpose, and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity made me laugh as I saw that even the most successful were hobbled by their own messy limitations.

Over the years, as I made my living embroiled in the daily truths of a journalism, first as a newspaper reporter and then an editor, I would seek inspiration from the greatest fiction writers, whose works would bestow more writing wisdom than my brain could hold. Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) showed how to create more by revealing less, Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) demonstrated a great writer could even make a PowerPoint presentation heartbreaking, and David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) proved there is no world that cannot be dreamed up by an insanely creative mind.

I would write my first novel, Sneaker Wave, while holding down the night city editor job at a daily newspaper. My mornings would be spent alone in a quiet house trying to stretch my imagination enough to conceive new realms or, more to the point, to make shit up. Then I would drive an hour across three bridges into another world, a frantic newsroom where a single word that deviated from a commonly accepted set of facts could mean a lawsuit and a severe blow to years of credibility. And there, I would consume myself in an exact reality as I assigned stories, fought for stories, did triage on stories, edited stories, killed stories and rewrote stories, always precisely conforming to what we understood as the rules of our universe.

Three times in a 10-year span in my journalism career the same shocking story came across my desk: A violent, deadly crime committed by at least one young person; a code of silence to cover it up; and the truth clawing its way to the surface on the back of someone with a conscience, even as others fought to keep it buried in the cold ground.

The third time this story presented itself, I whispered: That would make a great novel. And it did.

Sometimes at work I would read a small news story on a wire service and my mind would take the details and twist them into fiction. A news item on a cargo ship spilling thousands of pairs of shoes into a stormy ocean and onto a beach gave me a setting for a chapter in my first novel. A brief about tumbleweeds overrunning a small U.S. town became the spark for another story. Always, I would take a slice of the so-called real world and ask, What if? And, like some strange alchemy, that two-word question would turn reality into fantasy.

When I think about great writers, I’m not sure who I admire most. The author who can lose me so deeply in a novel that I don’t just see the truth in her words but I actually believe I am living them alongside the characters. Or the journalist who can do the opposite, by assembling a collection of information in a way that makes me cry and dream and imagine how humanity could together construct an even better world.

Either way, we need them both.