The Rehab Question: Novelist Catherine McKenzie on making the leap from fact to fiction.

Book Cover Forgotten

When my first novel, Spin, was released two years ago, and I began making the publicity rounds for it, I frequently got asked some version of the same question. Spin is about a journalist who follows a celebrity into rehab, and what everyone wanted to know was: what had inspired the book? Had I, in fact, been to rehab?

This first time I got asked this was at a book club. I was the first to arrive (a perpetual problem), and the host was pouring herself a glass of wine. She started to offer me one, then hesitated. Did I drink or …?

I was surprised to realize that she was asking me this because the main character in Spin might just have a drinking problem herself. Why was I surprised? Well, partly because it seemed a particularly personal question to ask, but also because my book is fiction. I mean, does Stephen King get asked if he’s spent time with The Tommyknockers?

So why, I was bold enough to ask back (after a couple of glasses of wine), had she asked that question? The answer was: well … aren’t you supposed to write what you know?

Ah, that old adage that has somehow been turned into: aren’t you supposed to be writing about yourself?

Well, folks, I’m no expert, but I beg to differ. You see, to me, writing about yourself is called memoir. A thinly disguised version of your life may be sold as fiction-- legally it might even have to be called fiction--but it isn’t, really. At least, not what I think of as fiction.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I too have a novel that is a (partially) thinly-disguised fictional account of some things that happened in my life. Current location: a deep dark drawer in my office. If I should die famous, perhaps some dedicated soul will spend their academic career trying to decipher what was real and what was fiction (hint to potential-future-academic: about half is total fiction, but honestly, don’t waste your time).

A writer friend of mine calls these kinds of novels “starter novels”, a term I love. My starter novel taught me that I could write something that was 90,000 words long. It taught me that I could make things up (remember that 50%!). It taught me that to write a novel you have to learn how to write when you are not feeling inspired. And while I have fond memories of it, I essentially look at that novel as sorbet, a palate cleanser. I needed to get myself out of the way (and down on paper) in order to be able to create imaginary people and situations. I started with me; I ended up with fiction.

When I finished my starter novel, I had an idea for a novel that was just fiction. I decided to write it. And while there are a few locations and events that are based on real life, writing it brought me to my own understanding of "what write what you know" means. It means taking the emotions you’ve felt through your real life experiences and transposing those onto your fictional characters. Something good has happened to my main character--how do I describe it? How do I feel when something good happens to me? I think that this is how you write characters that seem real--it's not because they’re based on real-life characters, but because their reactions to imagined situations are true to life.

My third novel, Forgotten, came out May 1st. It’s about a woman who takes what she thinks is a one-month trip to Africa and ends up stuck there for six months. When she returns home, her whole life is changed. And, yes, you guessed it: I have not been to Africa. Nope. Even though sections of the book are set there, the closest I’ve ever come to it was the glimpse I caught of it from Gibraltar. So, while I did quite a bit of research, I’m not writing what I know; I’m writing what I imagine.

Because, I think you have to write what you feel compelled to write. And I think you should challenge yourself. Just because writing about your own life is in many ways easier (no pesky plot to think up, for one) doesn’t mean that it’ll be the best thing you write. In fact, in most cases, I bet it won't be.
One last thing: I’ve never been to rehab. Not even a little bit.

Catherine McKenzie

Catherine McKenzie was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. A graduate of McGill University and McGill Law School, Catherine practices law in Montreal. An avid runner and skier, her novels Spin and Arranged are national bestsellers. Visit her online at Her book launches tonight (May 3!) in Montreal

May 3, 2012
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