Looking forward to my visit(s) tomorrow and Tuesday to Cranbrook: I’ll be talking fairy tales and literature and Headlong, and as both Cranbrook and Headlong are all about independent schooling, I’m anticipating a question or two about research and literary appropriation.

I’ve occasionally been met with the assumption that a book of mine is “really” about one actual place or another, or that this character “is” a real person, or thinly-fictionalized avatar of same. Or that the street kid skwatters of The Blue Mirror were so familiar, the book must have been “definitely set” in Seattle. Or Detroit. Or Chicago. {I’ve heard all three from different readers, and each was absolutely sure and had examples from the book to prove it.)

When this happens, first I thank the reader, for his/her close reading and passionate attention, and then we talk about it. And then I refer us both to that Anthony Lane quote. Because you can, and I do, use real life simply to make it all up.

[P.S. There’s also the whole question of what a book is (or is not) “about” in a personal sense of what it means to a particular reader. I remember having a book store conversation with a reader about my first novel, The Cipher: she began to tell me what certain events in the book symbolized, using examples from mythology. And I, like an idiot, interrupted her to say No, that couldn’t be what those things “meant,” because I had no knowledge of that branch of mythology. And so she went away, no doubt thinking I was a pompous asshole. Sadly, what I had done had not only robbed us both of an interesting discussion, it had prevented me from learning something very interesting about The Cipher, namely, not what it “meant” but what it meant to that reader. Which was an insight I could have gotten from no one but her; which could have enriched my understanding not only of that book but of why people read in the first place….I’m a little bit smarter, now.]

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