Monday, October 6, 2014

ALMOST FICTION, ALMOST TRUE: a conversation with YELIZAVETA P. RENFRO and ANANYA BHATTACHARYYA



I'm halfway through Volume 2 of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.  I told my son Elliot, "under no circumstances are you to read this book. Because once you start, you won't be able to do anything else."

I spent several hours this afternoon, chatting with two friends Yelizaveta P Renfro and Ananya Bhattacharyya. We met as fiction writers. Lisa's volume of essays,Xylotheque was recently published by University of New Mexico Press, but her debut, a few years back, was a collection of short stories. Ananya's fiction is charming, evocative and witty, but oddly she's more successful placing her essays, which appear in The Washingtonian, The New York Times and The Guardian.

We talked this afternoon about Knausgaard, and that fuzzy line between fiction and non fiction, exemplified in his work.  What's the different between fiction and non-fiction? Knausgaard's work owes its power to the excruciating detail with which he mines and chronicles his life. And yet he calls it fiction.

Why am I so fascinated when I read about Karl Ove  after his father's death, cleaning his father's house, scrubbing down counter tops, throwing out bottles. Why is this compelling to me?

"It must be because of the honesty in exploring every little thing and making it real for the reader," said Ananya. "You are in his head. But yes, it’s a little inexplicable, what's intriguing about it.

"Really, in terms of the second book, it's about being in that couple's kitchen and seeing what their life is like.  I think it appeals to that gossiping nature in us."

Yes, I said, but that still doesn't explain how he manages to be revealing and yet remain, as a figure, essentially enigmatic.
Ananya

"The more he reveals the more you want to know," Ananya said. "It's like you still don’t know him. He's capable of this, so what else is he capable of? What makes it fiction is that he has taken liberties. These are almost novels, almost fiction."

Anyone would want to be that kind of a writer, I said - one who readers can't put down.

"I don’t know if I could ever be that kind of a writer," Ananya said.  "I don’t know if I would be able to spill my guts out.  I mean, I have been writing personal essays but you can pick and choose details that you want to reveal.  His work is almost confessional but he’s doing something more than confessional.   Maybe the reader identifies with that aspect."

Yes, I said.  He writes about intimate things in his life with his wife - but he isn't writing about the cliche intimacies you might expect in fiction.  It isn't about sexual intimacy, for instance. It's more about embarrassing interpersonal arguments – his inability to confront issues head on, her pouring juice on the carpet in an argument, or gouging the dining room table.  And he's not flattering to himself either. Nor is he painting her as the villain. It's more the male female dynamic.  "She’s amazing to allow it, don’t you think," I said.
Lisa

"As a writer I think she gets what he’s trying to do," Ananya said.

"But sometimes as a parent I think, I need to protect my kids," Lisa put in. "I don’t want to go there because some day they‘ll be old enough to read this.  Even with non fiction, there are things I haven’t written about, and I think it's largely because I have kids."

"For me, there are things I can’t write about because even if I attempted to, my awkwardness would show," said Ananya. "The fact that I’m not totally comfortable would show.  If I could overcome that, I think it might be possible. But at this stage there are things that I cannot write about."

She laughed.  "I have attempted to write things – non fiction from my life. I sent a piece to my aunt and she said, 'I hope this was therapeutic.  Because this doesn’t work.She’s very honest.  'This is not working but hopefully it was therapeutic for you.' And I saw what she meant, later."

I told them that when I was writing my novel, which was based on a lot of personal experience, I realized there were some things I couldn’t have included. People would have said– oh that's  absolutely  ridiculous – that couldn’t possibly have been!  And so, for the sake of the story or the arc of the story, I couldn’t put some of those things in.  I also may have conflated certain people and things to serve the arc of the story.

"Are you writing fiction any more," I asked Lisa.

"I’ve gone back to the novel you read," she said. "I’ve revised it again but I may give up on it at this point. I’m mostly writing non-fiction.

"Sometimes I feel like the same material could be fiction or it could be non fiction and I just have to figure out which way I want to take it.  In certain cases, fiction allows you to approach material that is otherwise unapproachable.  Maybe it’s that awkwardness.  Fiction offers a form of protection.  You don’t have to admit that some of the not so nice impulses are your own, or some of the experiences  are your own.  So I think, in that way, it protects you.  Fiction also allows you to explore stories that are other peoples'.

"Something will grab me sometimes, which is not my own experience, which I'd just like to observe from the outside – and I think - how do I tell that story – and that becomes fiction."

Later she reflected, “I find it harder and harder to write fiction.  But feel like I’ve come full circle. As a student, I was convinced I wanted to be a journalist.  This was my passion and in college I was a journalism  major, I was the editor in chief of the college newspaper, I got a job working in newspapers while I was still in college and I did that for 4 yrs. 

"And then I realized, journalism can never be as in depth. We’re only looking at the surface here – we’re not going deep into why things happen and how people think and all these other things. And I  thought, that’s not the kind of writing I want to do – then it must be fiction.  So I went over to fiction.

"It's only recently that I’ve realized that creative non fiction is both worlds.  It's taking the journalistic aspect – this really happened in the world – but it's also taking the creativity with fiction.  You can use all these different lenses for looking at something. You can look at an event from so many different perspectives.  So I almost feel like it's taken me this long to realize this is the kind of writer I want to be – or maybe I was all along, but I just didn’t know it."


Ananya said, "I've been writing all these essays.  Then I had this impulse to write a short story about something I couldn't have explored in non fiction, because it was just a tiny event.  It was just too minor to mean anything as non fiction.

"With fiction, I could extend that and add stuff – connect it to other events and make something out of it.  So I started doing that again.  I don’t think I've decided that non fiction is where I'm  most comfortable. But it's easier to publish essays. That's something very attractive."


My novel, I told them,  is very autobiographical.  I knew I had this material and people would say sometimes, do you think you could write about that story. I would say, well I don’t know if I'd be able to write about it and do it justice. Or, maybe it was too close to me in some ways.  But after a certain amount of time  - you can do it – because you say to yourself – oh,  if I was imagining that I was a character - someone not quite me – then maybe I could think through this story in a useful and insightful kind of a way.

Yelizaveta P Renfro
Ananya Bhattacharyya

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