I was a reader long before I was a writer, and some of my earliest and most seminal reading experiences were with short stories. Because I cut my teeth on anthologies, I came to love the contributors’ notes section at the back of the book, where the authors would tell the stories behind their stories. Sometimes I loved them as much if not more than the fiction, and when I began to write stories of my own, I found myself composing ‘Notes’ to go along with them.
Revealing the backstory to my stories felt both dangerous and liberating.
At first I feared it might be akin to a reporter revealing her sources or a magician explaining her tricks. But I soon adopted the same philosophy toward the Notes as I had toward the stories themselves: Tell the truth as plainly as you can, and you can’t go wrong.
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Of course, there’s an art to ‘telling the truth,’ but I tried to hew to candor, even if I was only revealing the genesis of a minor detail. It was fun to acknowledge that certain parts of certain stories were, in effect, written for me. After all, as writers we are perpetually asked to collaborate with fate. For me, that’s when storytelling works best: When craft and fact exist in a state of mutual surrender.
Where does it come from, our fascination with the story behind the story? I’m friends with the wonderful writer Meg Giles, who wrote her thesis on the idea that as readers, we invest in an author’s biography. We would feel differently about the stories of Cormac McCarthy if we learned that he was actually a cloistered nun.
It shouldn’t matter, and it needn’t matter, but I admit: The more profoundly a piece of writing moves me, the more likely I am to find myself wondering about the life story of the writer—whether I want to or not. The same goes for the inverse: the more I learn about a writer, the more I find myself wondering about her stories, and looking deeper into them for a different understanding.
Some authors I know resist filling in the backstory to their work (“Quod scripsi, scripsi”), and it certainly is understandable. Revealing so much can leave you feeling vulnerable. I don’t know how much of this is attributable to the fact that this is my first book, but sometimes it already feels as if people reading I Knew You’d Be Lovely will afterward know me better than if they’d read a biography.
Knowing where to draw the boundaries can be problematic; I favor a style of writing where you try to continually push past your comfort zone toward greater intimacy and insight. But the destruction of boundaries in real life – cracking the world open and yourself along with it – is not always as wise. Sometimes the difficult thing is knowing where I end and where the page begins.
When I had finished a book’s worth of stories, I also had a book’s worth of Notes. I didn’t know at first if we should publish them – they would have been valuable to me just as a personal memory aid – but in the end, I’m glad we did. When a reader chooses your book, she’s effectively inviting you into her home and head.
I figure if someone’s going to invite me in, the least I can do is introduce myself.
I Knew You’d Be Lovely will be available wherever books are sold July 5, 2011. Read Alethea’s Author Notes, along with a full length story from the collection.
ALETHEA BLACK was born in Boston and graduated from Harvard College in 1991. Her father was a mathematician, and for a long time she believed her name, the Greek word for truth, was his way of tipping his cap to the idea of absolutes. Then one day her mother overheard her and said, “No, we got your name from a TV show.” (Judd, for the Defense.) Her forthcoming collection of short stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely (Broadway Books/Random House), was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick for Fall 2011, and will be in bookstores July 5. Black lives with Zoë in Dutchess County, NY.
RIFers! Enter to win a copy of Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely on Read It Forward Facebook. No purchase necessary. Limited quantities, while supplies last. Winners chosen at random. Open to U.S. residents over the age of 18. Giveaway offer ends July 8, 2011.