I was teaching in a liberal arts college when my first novel was released. I was walking down the hallway one day when a student I barely knew stopped me and started telling me she just read my book. I was harried racing in between the copy machine, my office and my classroom and so I was completely caught off guard. The young woman was so emotional when she was talking, that it took me a moment to catch up to her. It was when she said the words "I feel like you wrote my life" that I took pause. I smiled but before I could get a word out she proceeded to tell me all about her life including a highly dysfunctional roller coaster romance that mirrored the one in my novel. Eventually she asked me, "This isn't about me is it?" I couldn't help but to giggle a little before saying as gently as I could, "I didn't even know anything about your life until this conversation." She then told me even more details about her life and eventually I was late for the class I was teaching.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised by this interaction. My novel, Low-Fat Love, had been inspired by my teaching and research experiences over the years, in which I had interviewed many college-age women about their relationship and identity issues. In some ways this was the exact reaction I must've hoped for, even if subconsciously. The part I never anticipated was being confronted with people, and in later instances strangers, telling me intimate details about their lives, sometimes as if we're already mid conversation. As an interviewer, I am more accustomed than most to taking in the personal stories of others. But in interview situations that experience is pre-planned and orchestrated by the interviewer. It isn't unexpected. Over the past two years I've had countless readers spontaneously share their personal stories with me as a result of reading one of my novels. I've read the blogs of other authors who have talked about the peculiar feeling when strangers approach them, but it's the sharing of personal stories and the intimacy it assumes that is most particular and perhaps illuminating about the role of writers in society.
I think what these encounters really show is the power of storytelling, and perhaps the power of fiction in particular to create points of connection, empathy, resonance, "me-too" moments (as author Ronald Pelias has noted) and to tap into the depth of human emotions. For me, this affirms the usefulness of fiction for promoting new learning, self-awareness, social reflection and building bridges across differences.
On a personal level it also makes me feel like the characters I have penned are "alive" in some way, because they've not only touched me but they've also touched others. They live in the space between us. Writers are charged with capturing human experience and reflecting it back in a way that can unlock something in readers. So when people relate so deeply to characters and situations, it is obviously lovely and touching for any writer. I in no way wish to diminish the beauty in these exchanges. Nevertheless, as writers we are not therapists and not even friends with most of our readers, as they are strangers were connected to us through this imaginary realm. So what are we to do when readers start telling us the intimate details of their lives and in some cases asking for advice?
For me, sharing some of my own experiences as opposed to commenting on that of my readers has helped me navigate these wonderfully unexpected interactions. For example, recently, I joined a book club via Skype which resulted in one woman telling me about the sexual assault of her friend that happened decades ago, and the guilt she still carries because she didn't feel she did enough to help her friend. I was deeply touched that she shared this with me, and that the fictional scenario in my novel helped her unearth and verbalize these feelings. So I shared with her a starkly similar experience that I had about 20 years ago when a friend of mine was assaulted and my teenage self was of little help. I think it was a cathartic experience for us both, and one that highlights the role the imaginary has in helping us get closer to truth.
Patricia Leavy's latest novel, American Circumstance, is out now.