by Hank Phillippi Ryan
My mother was so mad at me. She was reading Face Time, the second Charlotte McNally mystery. She called me, nothing unusual. But it was her tone that was unusual. “I’m reading—your book,” she said. Her tone was more like: “I’m holding—a bug.”
Now Mrs. McNally is not, I repeat, not, my mother. But in these days of controversy over whether books that are purported to be memoirs are actually true—I find myself fighting to convince her that my book is truly fiction.
It’s ALL MADE UP, I tell her. Yes, Charlie has a Mom, and I have a Mom. But I’m not Charlie and she’s not you.
Silence on the other end of the phone.
“Of course it’s me, dear,” she finally says. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
I’ve worked in television for thirty years. And yes, I watched Mary Tyler Moore, and did indeed recognize some Ted Baxter qualities in a few anchor people (men AND women) I’ve known over he years. And Murphy Brown, too. The smart but aging investigative reporter Murphy could be Charlie McNally’s older sister. But those characters, though based on qualities real people in newsrooms may have, are fictional. Made up.
Digression: You know those ‘something meets something’ descriptions authors are supposed to come up with for their books? (Like you’re supposed to say: “My book is about a crime-fighting but fashionable deep-sea fishergirl—sort of Jaws meets The Devil Wears Prada.”) Because of the success of the secret-code element of The Da Vinci Code, I wanted to characterize Prime Time, my first Charlie book, as “Dan Brown meets Murphy Brown.” A bigwig in the publishing biz told me that was no good--because one knows who Murphy Brown is. Oh. Dear.
Anyway. Then there’s the husband situation. My dear Jonathan, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, is nothing like, looks nothing like, behaves nothing like, the possible love interests in the books. Still. He can’t bear to read the “mushy parts” and can’t bear to hear bout what Charlie does or even thinks about, when it comes to men.
IT’S ALL MADE UP, I tell him. There have to be men involved, this is romantic suspense. But Charlie’s men are not you.
Silence. “Of course they are,” he says. “Or even worse, old boyfriends. And I don’t want to read about that.”
And finally, there’s the “Is Charlie McNally you” question. And I must admit that one stops me. Yes, Charlie’s an investigative reporter for a Boston TV station. And I am, too. And it would be silly to waste thirty years of TV experience—that’s what (I hope) make Charlie’s life seem authentic. But she’s younger. More confident. And fictional. And yes, okay, things that happen to Charlie have happened to me--in a—way. But she can say things I could never say, reveal things I could never reveal, and I must say, I’ve never actually been in the life-threateningly frightening situations Charlie has. Chased? Yes. Threatened? Yes. Punched? Almost. That stopped when I said to my photographer: “make sure you’re rolling on this.”
And, like Charlie does in AIR TIME, I've wired myself with a hidden camera, put on a disguise, and gone undercover. All to get a good story. But my TV stories, of course, are true.
Anyway. So I’m wondering, do any of you have a problem with this? Do people “recognize” themselves in your books—and you have to convince them it’s a fictional character they’re recognizing? Would you “use” someone for “art”?
Or if you’re a reader, do you assume fictional characters are real people just put on paper?
And as it turns out—as Mom will find out if she’ll just get to the end of the book—Face Time is not only a mystery, and a romance, but kind of a love story between mothers and daughters. My editor said she had tears in her eyes at the end. One reviewer told me she cried. (Which is odd, you have to admit, in a murder mystery.)
Yes, as authors we take elements of reality. Then we polish, and tweak, and exaggerate, and accessorize. But the fun is making up something completely new. Creating a new world. New characters and new relationships. And it’s ALL MADE UP.
Do you have a contentious relationship with your mother? (or daughter?) Do you understand each other?
PRIZES!--A copy of the TIME book of your choice to four lucky commenters!
Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution. Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a radio reporter, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson.
Hank is on the New England Board of Sisters in Crime and the national board of Mystery Writers of America. Her website is http://www.hankphillippiryan.com/