One of the questions I get from readers regularly is about whether my novels are autobiographical. I'm guessing this happens to me so much because I wrote my first four novels in first person. Novels written this way tend to feel a bit like memoirs, so it's only natural that readers would wonder about how much of this fiction is fact. Whenever I'm asked this, my first thought is to squint my eyes like DiNiro and say, "Little bit." I'm awful at impersonations, though, so I don't actually do the DiNiro thing. It's better for all involved.
However, sans the squinty eyes, "little bit" is an accurate response. None of my novels have been my story. I thankfully never lost my wife to sudden illness or my daughter to teenaged wanderlust as Gerry did in When You Went Away. I never fell in love with my brother's girlfriend and entered into an intensely complicated relationship with her ten years later as Hugh did in Crossing the Bridge. And I certainly never spent a stretch of time cooking my mother's greatest dishes in an attempt to bring her back from the brink of Alzheimer's as Warren does in The Journey Home.
In each of these novels, though, there are elements of the story that do come from my life. The "second-best" relationship that Gerry experiences with his daughter is one I'm very familiar with because my wife and daughter are so close that it took me until she was older to approximate their relationship. (There's also the part about the Yankees. Many readers have commented that they feel that Gerry's expositions about the Yankees are superfluous. I had a good reason for putting those passages in there – they're meant to symbolize renewable hope – but I have to admit they're probably more self-indulgent than they should be.) One of the core inspirations for Crossing the Bridge was the mystery I always felt about a brother who died several years before I was born. And while I never thought of cooking for my mother when she was sick, I did watch Alzheimer's take her away. (On a much happier note, my parents inspired the relationship between Antoinette and Don; they were unabashedly romantic with each other).
My novel Spinning, is about a hotshot PR guy in Manhattan who needs to reorder all of his priorities when he suddenly finds himself in charge of a three-year-old girl. How much of this happened to me? Absolutely none. However, the sense of dramatically reordered priorities is one I am very familiar with. When my first child was born, I realized with a suddenness that a more grounded person never would have experienced that I was in this life for good. I never had a particularly wandering spirit, but I always had a vivid imagination. Part of that imagination included visions of elaborate reboots of my life: deciding to join the Peace Corps, making a sudden career shift into cattle ranching, joining a commune, that sort of thing. With the birth of my daughter, I realized that none of that was possible anymore – and that I didn't mind this in the least. If Dylan had adjusted to this as quickly as I did, Spinning would have been that much closer to my own story. I don't like to make my novels too autobiographical, though.
Just a little bit.