In the last year or so, our worlds have continued to turn upside-down and inside-out with events that have exceeded the imaginations of some of our most creative artists. Daily, news headlines go beyond mere clickbait to give us life imitating dystopic art. We are glued more and more to our social media feeds, scrolling through today’s shock, yesterday’s awe, and tomorrow’s horror.
Several writer friends have mentioned, especially after Brexit and the US elections, how they could not focus, could not create, could not write. Some reader friends have despaired that books, magazines, and stories did not offer the solace and insights they once savored. And many publications have been asking for politics-related submissions rather than their usual fare.
I, too, have experienced similar reading and writing challenges. But, tempted as I was to dash off a headline-inspired story, I held myself back (till my most recently completed short story) because, as always, of these questions: do I have something to add that has not already been said and do I have the wherewithal to do it really well? Maybe this is self-doubt, maybe self-preservation.
Fiction from real world events has been done since our cave-dwelling ancestors drew crude wall graphics or sat around fires telling each other embellished and exaggerated personal anecdotes. So, the first step for me, before I began my own such short story, was to look at examples of outstanding short fiction primarily inspired by headlines or real events.
Below, you will find five such stories (free to read online, just click the story title link) from Roxane Gay, Robert Olen Butler, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Susan Glaspell, and Meera Nair. From quietly tragic to cleverly satiric to magically surreal, these stories do a whole lot more than tell us what simply happened: they show us the textures, shapes, and densities that might exist below the superficial layers and what that might mean for our own lives.
Why fictionalize rather than simply share the insights in a non-fictional essay, one might ask. To that, I can only say that fiction allows certain truths to be expressed or illustrated that non-fiction does not — at least not quite as effectively.
What I learned both from studying these stories and writing my own is how there are several specific challenges to this kind of storytelling. For example:
— creating sufficient dramatic tension when readers mostly know what happened
— resisting the urge for exposition or polemic
— avoiding the narrative fallacy, which is about trying to explain everything that happened with glib cause-and-effect correlations — a much better approach is to highlight key aspects and raise more questions than answers so that readers are compelled to think for themselves
— balancing factual details with fictional constructs appropriately to provide fresh/new/different perspectives that take readers out of our safe, protected filter-bubbles (the truth is, facts alone do not change our minds, especially when they’re coming at us in multitudes from all directions.)
— making the narrative engaging and the language striking so that the story does not read as merely a rehashing of yesterday’s news
Fictional presidents have been around for a long time. Recently, I mused about the ones on TV.
But, Melville House went one better. Back in 2012, they created a series of fictional stories about the real-life 44 US Presidents. Their goal was to “creatively interpret the legacies of the men who’ve held this land’s highest office.” And, for sure, there are all kinds of creative here in these lovely, short bursts of prose.
It was hard to pick one so I went with my favorite writer of the lot there: Roxane Gay writing about John F Kennedy. And, boy, does she have her wicked way with him. Read them all though — each story is terrific in its own way.
It is interesting that, of all the scenes Gay could have recreated from JFK’s presidency, Gay chose to give us these three very intimate ones. Perhaps it is because JFK was, in many ways, the first real TV President with the extremely glamorous celebrity wife, Jackie and, for many Americans, the personal lives of this near-royal couple were almost as well-known as that of friends and neighbors. And, because of the affairs and because he died so young, our collective memories recall JFK as this virile, sexual being — more so than any other President. The final scene has JFK as a young boy with his father and their brief exchange says so much.
After, he’d lie on his side, propping himself on one elbow longing for their bodies to still be joined. He’d rest his hand on her stomach, flat, not enough softness and again, he’d say, “Let’s run away, baby, just you and me,” and there would be such a mournful tone in his voice. She never flinched. She would just cover his hand with hers. She’d say, “There, there, Jack. Be a good boy,” a hard edge to her voice that made his entire body tense. She’d resume her reading while he stared at the ceiling, silently breathing in the darkness hovering over them.
This story is from a collection titled ‘Tabloid Dreams’. I read it last year and enjoyed every single story. Butler took bizarre tabloid headlines and spun a fantastic story around each. Now, because these were tabloid headlines, the chances of them being “real life” are very slim indeed. But, it is more about what Butler did with them, creating even better stories, I think, than whatever was published originally in the tabloids themselves.
I chose this story over the other two because of the tender ways with which he balanced tragedy and comedy to make the story come alive so that we think: sure, this could happen. Also, Butler gave all his narrators rather interesting voices and this one fit the story so perfectly.
And all of a sudden I’m looking at Roy and he’s a little alarmed, but in addition to his face in my head is another sight. A blur of miniblinds and china hutch and then the ceiling and the pink oriental rug and the ceiling and the rug and the ceiling. And then both of these things are in me, both real, both clear as can be: the temples on Roy’s face throbbing and the little red light on the smoke detector flashing. My glass eye has flown out of my face and is lying on the rug about ten feet away and it’s staring at the ceiling and I’m seeing through it.
I’m cheating a bit here because I have featured this one before. But, it is one of my favorites still, so I’m sharing it again. Adichie wrote this during the 2016 elections, when we did not know that Melania Trump was going to be the First Lady of the United States.
Riffing on the opening from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway‘, Adichie gave us a Melania who, though still somewhat of a cipher in real life, has a full interior world here. It would have been easy to slip into parody with a story featuring the Trump family, but, in Adichie’s skilled hands, we get something much more interesting.
She described her storytelling here, saying: “Fiction can remind us — and because of the blood-sport nature of politics, we constantly need reminding — that the players in politics are first human beings.”
Melania decided she would order the flowers herself. Donald was too busy now anyway to call Alessandra’s as usual and ask for “something amazing.” Once, in the early years, before she fully understood him, she had asked what his favorite flowers were.
“I use the best florists in the city, they’re terrific,” he replied, and she realized that taste, for him, was something to be determined by somebody else, and then flaunted.
True crime has inspired many short story writers and novelists. This classic is one of my favorites.
John Hossack, a farmer near Indianola, Iowa, was killed with an ax while he slept in bed. His wife Margaret was charged with the murder and convicted on April 11, 1901, but the verdict was overturned and a second trial ended with a hung jury. Susan Glaspell, who covered the case for the Des Moines Daily News, later fictionalized it in her 1916 one-act play, ‘Trifles’, and a 1917 short story, ‘A Jury of Her Peers’. [Source: Wikipedia]
The case was overturned due to a lack of sufficient evidence and was never solved. Glaspell solved it in her own way through her fiction.
It is interesting to note that, at the time this case went to trial, women were not allowed to vote or serve on juries. So, for Glaspell to use two women as the main characters here to solve the crime makes this somewhat of a feminist statement.
Glaspell’s approach, however, is subtle and richly nuanced, raising questions, even today, about enforcement of justice, who gets to judge whom and why, the role of empathy in criminal investigations, and more. Also, she ends her short story before any conviction or case is made, allowing us to piece together the real story with her fictional one.
One thing I particularly like about Glaspell’s storytelling is how so much is left unsaid between the characters and, instead, Glaspell “shows” us what they are thinking rather than letting her characters speak it all out. The use of dialogue here is worth studying.
More background about the story can be found here.
Here’s Sally Heckel’s Oscar-nominated 30-minute movie based on the story.
And here’s the TV episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, also based on the story.
“Well, I was surprised. She didn’t ask me to come up to the stove, or to sit down, but just set there, not even lookin’ at me. And so I said: ‘I want to see John.’
“And then she–laughed. I guess you would call it a laugh.
“I thought of Harry and the team outside, so I said, a little sharp, ‘Can I see John?’ ‘No,’ says she–kind of dull like. ‘Ain’t he home?’ says I. Then she looked at me. ‘Yes,’ says she, ‘he’s home.’ ‘Then why can’t I see him?’ I asked her, out of patience with her now. ‘Cause he’s dead’ says she, just as quiet and dull–and fell to pleatin’ her apron. ‘Dead?’ says, I, like you do when you can’t take in what you’ve heard.
On February 22, 2017, Srinivas Kochibhotla, an Indian-American, was shot dead in a bar in Olathe, KS in an alleged hate crime. The white shooter had thought he and his drinking buddy were Middle Eastern and yelled at them to go back to their country before shooting at them.
About a week later, Kochibhotla’s wife, Sunayana Dumala, wrote a beautiful post on Facebook about her husband. One of the things she wrote was: “I wish that you had come home when I asked you to have tea.”
Meera Nair took that one single sentence and wrote a heartbreaking what-might-have-been account. Using various news reports, videos, photographs, etc., Nair also gave us some rather spot-on descriptions of husband and wife and what their lives as first-generation immigrants might have been like.
It would have been easy to make all this drip with sentimentality or give us a victim story. Instead, we have the pricelessness of ordinary moments and ordinary lives, which are all the more wrenching because we know what has happened.
Your husband is 6 feet, 2 inches and handsome as the actors in the films the two of you watch on weekends, curled up on the sofa, pleased at the familiar jokes and storylines. The movies have songs. Shamelessly sentimental, full of rain and mountains and longing. Your husband, thinks he’s strong, thinks he’s giving nothing away when he sings them around the house. You don’t tell him that his voice, when it breaks, lodges a stone deeper in your chest. Still, each year your kitchen takes on a new appliance, your house new rooms. It’s okay, you say. It’s all okay.
Now, if these have inspired you to try your own headline-inspired fiction, you might start with Electric Literature’s fiction prompts culled from the news. Comes out each month, I believe.
Till next month, then. Happy reading.