Back in 2005, writer John D'Agata submitted an article about a Las Vegas teenager's suicide to The Believer magazine. An intern named Jim Fingal was assigned to fact-check the piece, which is standard practice at any journalistic or non-fiction publication. D'Agata had warned previous editors that he had taken some liberties in his writing, but Fingal was probably unprepared for the amount of creative licence in the article. Dates and numbers were changed to better fit the narrative and rhythm of the text. Details about the interview subjects were altered to help make the story more dramatic. D'Agata conducted informal interviews without taking notes and often couldn't provide Fingal evidence to back up what he asserted people said. And more strikingly to Fingal, D'Agata didn't really seem to see a problem with it. In the end, after Fingal fact-checked the 15-page essay, he had a 100-page document of notes pointing out all the inaccuracies and questionable aspects of the story.
How did D'Agata react when he saw this document?
"Well, I was a little appalled, I was kind of embarrassed, I was angry, but I was also amazed and maybe perversely delighted too, because Jim's document was as obsessive with getting the facts right as I was kind of indifferent to them," D'Agata told Q host Jian Ghomeshi during a recent interview. "And his documents seemed a perfect foil to what I was arguing, and my essay and his document seemed to illustrate to me this dilemma that non-fiction writers face."
This debate about the nature of truth in the context of art is the driving theme behind the new book Lifespan of a Fact
, which is a re-creation of the pair's year-long copy editing battle. Based on their back-and-forth email exchanges, it's a unique dialogue that pits D'Agata's strong sense of creative licence versus the principle of factual accuracy that underlies most non-fiction work.
"I approach non-fiction a little differently," D'Agata explained. "I was trained as a poet, and don't even really like to use the term non-fiction to describe what I write. I use the term essay, because ... the term non-fiction signals to a reader what you're going to get in the text is 'just the facts, ma'am.'"
D'Agata, who teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa, believes it's more important for him to provide an atmosphere and an experience for the reader, as opposed to merely reiterating the facts.
"I'm trying to figure out why not only this boy killed himself, but why, as I discovered in the course of researching the essay, why Las Vegas is experiencing an epidemic of suicides. More people kill themselves there than nearly anywhere else in the U.S. So the best way I knew how to approach that was to, again, to try to bring the reader into an atmosphere that could replicate what I feel."
D'Agata said he has no problem with changing "minor facts" but agrees there's still a limit to how much a story can be teased and shaped.
"There is a line, but it's a line that each writer individually has to find for him or herself." This debate about the value of facts and the duty of writers has been around for years, and occasionally explodes when a high-profile memoir gets exposed for containing fabricated elements. Recent examples include James Frey (A Million Little Pieces
) and former minor league pitcher Matt McCarthy (Odd Man Out
D'Agata wanted Lifespan of a Fact
to "replicate the hysteria that usually the conversation becomes" and openly shares that the re-created email exchanges in the book have been sexed up with more insults and more animosity than actually existed. Which makes it the first embellished non-fiction book about whether or not it's right to embellish non-fiction.