Writing fiction: You write best when you’re one step off real


At the Heart of the Universe, my new novel, is set in China.  We adopted our daughter Katie in Changsha when she was four months old—she had been given up for adoption at one month. The novel takes place mostly ten years later, when we went back there with her—to the orphanage, and the police station where she had been taken after being abandoned.

Since this novel is based in part on a real adventure, the question in writing the novel is always, “How far off real” do I write?


When I wrote my third novel, Mount Misery, a sequel to The House of God, at one point my harsh, but good editor said:

“This is not working.  You write best when you’re one step off real, and this is at least two, if not three.  Bring it back.”

And I learned to do that.


Two examples, both from At the Heart of the Universe

1.Very close to real:  Clio, Katie’s adopted mother, recalling an incident when Katie was about four:

“Only rarely would Katie mention her birth mom.  On Katie’s birthday they’d light a twenty-one year candle to her birth mother and say a prayer, to remember that wherever in China she might be, she too was remembering Katie that day.  The first time Katie mentioned her she was about four.  They were in the car, and suddenly from the back seat came, “Mommy, I came from another mommy’s tummy, right?”  Clio was stunned, but ready.  “Yes, darling, in China before we met you, you grew in another mommy’s tummy and they weren’t able to take care of you because they didn’t have enough food and money, so we went and got you and brought you home.”

From the back seat, total silence.  Clio held her breath.  Finally she asked, “Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” Katie said.  There was a pause, and then: “Can I have french fries for dinner?”

Pep broke out laughing as did Clio—and Katie too, even though she didn’t know why.  She screeched with laughter, like a happy bird.”

Really happened, pretty much like that.  I have no doubt that it rings true, and is authentic.

2.) Maybe close to real, maybe far–

“Sitting on the train, the baby at her breast, the young woman thinks, They say there’s a machine in Changsha City that will tell you if it’s a boy or a girl.  If I had had one of those machines I would not be doing this now.  If I’d made this trip before, I wouldn’t have to be making it now.  I didn’t have to do it.  Jiwei said he would do it for me.  Jiwei’s father said he would do it for me.  I said no.  I am the only one to do this, I said.

Thinking, But can I?  Maybe there is a way of saving her?”

I take the risk of putting myself in the head of this thirty-three year old female Chinese peasant, living on a farm, going on her first train ride to Changsha to abandon her one-month old baby.

Yes, it is  presumptuous.  I base it on my knowing many Chinese of her age, and reading everything I could, showing it to my two born-in-China readers, and then “ being in her”.  Does it work?  No one can know how close or far from real it is, but it has the ring of truth, like the other.

Gotta be brave, but not sloppy.

So we writers have to do all our research, and all our emotional research inside, and then show it to people we trust to tell you the truth, kindly—I have my small group of veteran Shemreaders—and then just go for it.  And then revise it.  Like the great Tolstoy, I too have to revise each novel about seven times.

Tolstoy’s editor got so fed up with him on the seventh revision of War and Peace—actually the writing down of his revisions was the task of his over-patient wife—and wrote to him finally:

“When will you stop your infernal scribbling!”

Only just before he died.


Follow Samuel Shem on Goodreads and Facebook

And please join us @ the book launch for At the Heart of the Universe:

Samuel Shem in conversation with Adam Pertman, Adoption Nationand with Katie Surrey-Bergman and Janet Surrey. At Soho Playhouse, 14 Vandam Street, NYC. November 14, Monday at from 7 to 8:45.  Free


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