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Where fiction and fact meet, and the Canada Reads books

"How much of your book is true?"

This is a question that most writers will face at some point in their careers. I think it goes without saying that if someone reads a book and likes it -- or loves it, in the best-case scenario -- there's usually a desire to learn more about the person who wrote it.

In my own experience, the "truth" question is usually the first one -- or among the first -- that I get asked. Depending on who's asking and how many glasses of wine I've consumed, my responses will usually vary from "not much" to "some of it" to "a lot." Ironically, all of these answers are true in their own way. It's a tough question for writers and even tougher to separate the strands of reality from the fictional ones. Things get blurry. Meshed. Writers sometimes get lost in their fictional landscapes.

The "truth" question seems important to readers, but I'm not really sure why. Does it make the book more interesting? Does it give the reader more insight? Does it deepen the bond between the writer, the reader and the book?

Could a piano factory forge a connection between Brian and Alice Munro?

Image by Courtney Bolton. Licensed via Creative Commons.

A friend of mine hails from Wingham, Ontario. Those of you who are familiar with Alice Munro will know that she comes from that area. One of my favourite Munro stories is Carried Away, the opening story in the book Open Secrets. The story is set in a fictional town called Carstairs and there's a piano factory that serves an important role in the story. As a reader, and as someone who knows a few details about Munro's life, I assumed Carstairs was really Wingham and it became very important for me to prove it. I wanted to know if the piano factory had actually existed.

"Was there a piano factory in Wingham?" I asked my friend.

She wasn't sure. "Why do you need to know?"

"Because I do," I said. It was a vague answer, but an honest one. Why did it matter if there had been a piano factory? Did it change my perceptions about the story? About Munro? Did it mean anything?

I remember talking to another writer once about the "truth" question. I told her I likened it finding out a magician's secrets.

"Some readers want to find out how you 'did it,'" I said. "But by separating the fiction from the non-fiction, they're trying to spoil the illusion of the trick."

(I was also feeling a little defensive. Sometimes, there's the perception that the more autobiographical a fiction book is, the less magic is in the mix. By drawing on the details of his or her own life, the writer has cheated in some way, rather than created a fantastical world based solely on a powerful imagination.)

The other writer thought differently. A reader wants to know the truth in fiction, she countered, because it deepens the relationship with the writer. It all came down to making a human connection.

We know a few facts about our Canada Reads authors. Ami McKay's home was once a birth house. Terry Fallis worked on Parliament Hill. Angie Abdou is a competitive athlete. Jeff Lemire grew up in the same county as the title of the book. Carol Shields wrote Unless while battling breast cancer.

How much is our perception of books affected by what we know about the writer's life?

Should it matter?


A couple of years back, I did a reading in Bayfield, Ontario (also known as "Munro country" by some people) for Canada Reads 2009. I remember driving down the single-lane highway, surrounded by the winter-weary February landscape. Alice would have driven these same roads, seeing the same things as I was seeing. This excited me. I caught a glimpse of her world; the touchstones within her field of vision. I felt a connection.

My need to uncover Alice's truths wasn't about taking away her magic. It was about understanding how those truths added to the magic of my own experiences.

Brian Francis

Brian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published next year.

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