It’s taken me twenty years of writing fiction to admit this, but I hate fiction.
Don’t get me wrong: I love lying, I love making things up, I love sharpening and blunting the corners of reality with my words.
But I’m deeply uncomfortable with the arbitrary structures that are supposed to make good fiction like Freytag’s Triangle, the Hero’s Journey, and all that Save-the-Cat bullshit. Also, disembodied third-person storyteller voices narrating from Beyond can go fuck themselves; who are you and what’s your angle, pal?
Give me a good hoax any day. Give me a wobbly unpredictable story made of fake newspaper articles or letters or lab notes or journal entries or police accounts or depositions, and I’m with you all the way.
(Ever wonder why so many of my stories are told in the first person and/or woven together from found objects? It’s not JUST because I suck at exposition.)
For some reason, I have the heart of a forger, so my fiction tries to explain its own existence as something other than fiction. It might have to do with discovering horror non-fiction as a kid before the made-up kind, haunting the section of the elementary school library with the books about ghosts, missing people, and UFOs that were supposedly true.
One of the greatest compliments I received for my work is the undergrad at ICFA who asked me after a reading of “Night Fever” if I planned to write any more stories about this amazing Charles Manson character I created.
(Maybe it shouldn’t be.)
The trouble is that I forget this all of the time, and there’s a phase of my writing where I grind hopelessly at a “normal” narrative wondering why it doesn’t feel alive to me. Eventually I remember to flip the con man switch – thanks, Dad, for the bullshitter genes! – and I start to enjoy the work a lot more, imagining how it will affect a reader.
That’s the key to a hoax: it has to involve empathy, extending your emotional reach to imagine what would convince other people. You can use that for evil, selling shares in things that don’t exist. Or you can use it for weirdness, convincing readers that a balloon has made it across the Atlantic like Poe did.
I use it for weirdness because it isn’t fun unless the audience eventually enjoys the artistry of the hoax.
That’s why I’m so compulsively and bluntly honest in the real world: most lies are boring.