Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When Truth Meets Fiction… or Is it The Other Way Around?

by Saralee Rosenberg

It is the greatest joy to catch someone in the act of reading one of my novels (especially if they are not related). Unfortunately, reader-stalking is not the best way for a novelist to endear herself...

Too bad. I'd love to ask them to answer a short survey when they finished.

Did the story resonate with them? Were they fully engaged in the outcome of the characters? Most important, did they believe the story?

As an emerging author, I didn't expect that it would be such an enormous challenge to carry readers over the I-believe-you threshold. How hard could it be when every day, the most improbable, crazy, and inexplicable stories made the news? When our first reaction was to ask ourselves, did that actually happen?

Of course it is only human to adore the stories that make us laugh or at least thank God that it didn't happen to us! But what about the stories that trigger deep sadness and instill fear?

Heartbreak alert: Take the recent Christmas-day fire in Connecticut that took the lives of three beautiful, young girls and their grandparents. This was an unfathomable tragedy and it continues to haunt me as I'm sure it does many others.

Question is, with all its tragic implications, wouldn't this story have all of the elements of a riveting novel? It could explore pain, guilt and love, and also hopefully redemption.

And yet, the more improbable the story, the more likely that readers, reviewers and editors would revolt. There is nothing they seem to hate more than a contrived or preposterous premise.

So ironic. Thanks to 24-hour news cycles, we are subjected to the most surreal and mind blowing stories. What about the sordid and bizarre tales involving politicians, athletes and Hollywood stars? In fact, where would all the late night comics be without Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian?

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. I've never heard of a character in a novel that almost ran for President in order to help boost the ratings of his reality show. Or one that got paid millions for marrying on network television and then filed for divorce seventy-two days later.

But why should novels be excluded from the crazy parade? Other than science fiction and vampire-inspired fantasies, there seems to be this unspoken rule that in order for a novel to succeed, the premise cannot suspend believability.

Hollywood, of course, has no such restrictions. Anything goes and actually, the more insane and contrived the plot, the better. Bridesmaids comes to mind. But were I to write a scene in one of my novels in which the bridal party got group diarrhea and had to defecate into ladies room sinks, I’m pretty sure I would get my own ass kicked.

So why are novelists held to a different standard?

I think it has much to do with the fact that as children, our first sense of connectedness with the world came from storybooks. They kept us company when we were lonely, entertained us when we needed cheering up, kept us guessing when we wanted to escape our surroundings, and mostly, they assured us when we yearned for faithful companionship.

Our favorite books traveled with us, got tucked by our bedsides, and didn’t need to be "on the schedule" like a movie or TV show. They became familiar and beloved, like friends and family. But they also shared an inherent truth.

Though the stories were make-believe, the feelings and emotions were not. We could experience fear and hurt, but also joy and love. We could learn about relationships, trust, honor and devotion. We could witness the outcome of not giving up in spite off insurmountable odds. We could root for the good guys and be delighted over the demise of the bad guys.

In fact, that happy ending was the most satisfying element of all. We needed our heroes to be victorious, for it gave us hope that we too could enjoy happy endings.

As a novelist, I have never lost sight of this emotional connection between the reader and the characters. This sense that beneath all the antics and surprises, a character's fears and feelings must resonate. In other words, it is not only the final destination that matters to readers, it is the journey.

That is why if I am lucky enough to encounter someone reading one of my novels, I only need to see a smile or hear a laugh to know that I did my job. And if they ask for an autograph, I am forever indebted.

Saralee Rosenberg is the author of four novels from Avon including, DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD; FATE AND MS. FORTUNE; CLAIRE VOYANT; and A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE. She is at work on her first novel for middle-grade girls, HOTLINE TO HEAVEN.

Visit her website. www.saraleerosenberg.com


  1. How's this for a preposterous storyline: Someone reading a Saralee Rosenberg novel without smiling and laughing. Could never happen!

    Thanks for the great blog post!

  2. Loved your post, Saralee. You're right about the sacredness of storytelling, at least to me. I can't wait to read your books!

  3. Lovely post. I remember watching Bridesmaids and thinking the same thing. Too over-the-top for a novel but I loved it.

  4. Great post, Saralee! So thoughtful-- and true!

  5. That's an interesting analysis of why books are held to a different standard than movies - hadn't thought of that!

  6. Great post, Sara! One time, right after my first book came out, I was in a bookstore and two women friends were looking at copies of The Thin Pink Line. I leaned across the table and whispered, "You know, I heard that's a pretty good book." They looked at me, looked at the author pic on the book...then they hurried to checkout and bought those copies so I could sign them - fun! If only I could spend 24 hours a day in the bookstore, I'm sure I'd be rich.

    1. The same thing happened to me, Lauren. It was so exciting... She bought the book, had me sign it and then we stayed in touch. It turned out that her husband proposed to her in that bookstore and it's always been special. She just happened to be visiting that weekend as they'd moved years earlier. It would be great to hang out in bookstores. Oh the stories we could tell!

  7. Love it, Saralee!

    I once sold my book to someone looking at it at Target--but I think I may have freaked her out a little! LOL