Gayle Brandeis: When Fiction Comes True

Several years ago, the doorbell chimed while I was writing a scene about a character named Lime Boy. When I opened the door, my brain just about fell out of my skull; Lime Boy was standing on my front porch. He looked exactly as I had envisioned him–young face beneath emerald hair, ripped clothes, whiff of clove cigarettes on his leather jacket. I glanced around to see if any of my other characters had materialized.

Lime Boy shifted uncomfortably as I gawked. “I’m here to pick up Chelsea?” he finally said. His mom worked for my son’s friend Chelsea’s mom, it turned out. His name had nothing to do with fruit.

I nodded and went to get my son’s friend, a mix of relief and disappointment flooding my veins. After the initial freak out, how amazing would it have been to meet one of my characters in person, to see him in all three dimensions, to hear his voice outside my own head?

My writing has since played itself out in the world in surprising, if not quite as dramatic, ways.

When I went through the proof pages for my 2010 novel Delta Girls, I came to a line where a character says, “My mother killed herself, you know.” Air shot out of my body as if I had been kicked in the gut. My own mom had killed herself just a few weeks before. I had forgotten that aspect of my character’s history and was taken aback by how casually he could say those words. Had I been subconsciously preparing myself for my own mother’s death? Her suicide had been so unexpected, but perhaps some part of me had known? My writing self definitely knows more than my everyday self—sometimes, it seems, it may even know the future.

In 2011, I decided to publish my novel The Book of Live Wires as an e-book. I had written it — the sequel to my Bellwether Prize-winning novel, The Book of Dead Birds — during National Novel Writing Month in 2002 and hadn’t looked at it since. Writing it had been a way to get back into my creative flow and reconnect with my characters; I wrote it for myself, never imagining I’d share it. Several people had asked about a sequel over the years, though, and I finally decided to dust it off to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Bellwether Prize.

I didn’t remember much of what I had written during that white-hot blaze of a month, and as I started to revise the manuscript, I was stunned by how much of the story is now relevant to my life. In The Book of Live Wires, my main character, Darryl (who had been the love interest in The Book of Dead Birds) is on his second marriage, as am I. He and Ava got married when she was pregnant, fairly early in their relationship; so did we. He is Jewish, but they had their baby baptized for non-religious family reasons; same here, when we traveled to Denmark to inter my mother-in-law’s ashes and her family wanted Asher baptized in the family church where generations of family members had been baptized. In both cases, we were uncomfortable with this but wanted to honor our spouse’s family tradition and tried to look at it as an interesting cultural experience. I had completely forgotten about that scene; reading it raised an eerie deja vu-like prickle on my skin. In 2002, I couldn’t have anticipated any of these things in my own life, but I suppose I had given myself a dress-rehearsal of sorts on the page (especially for grief, which suffuses the book, and which I hadn’t experienced firsthand yet as I wrote it.)

I’m not the only writer who has experienced strange coincidences between fiction and real life.

Speculative fiction sometimes accurately predicts the future, such as Jules Verne anticipating Florida as a site for rocket launches to the moon, or Gary Shteyngart’s presaging of economic crisis in his novel Super Sad True Love Story. Or Octavia Butler, who seemed to foresee Trump when she wrote in her 1998 novel Parable of the Talents (a book that featured a politician who promised to “Make America great again”):

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.

To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.

To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.

To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.

To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.

To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

But often fictional coincidences are much more personal in nature.

In her 2011 obituary of YA fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones, Deborah Kaplan writes, “Jones’ stories had an uncanny knack for coming true. At the very moment she finished writing a scene in which all the buildings in Time City fall down, the roof of her study collapsed, leaving most of it open to the sky. She turned these complications into humorous stories in their own right, which she summarized in a letter to me: ‘After writing Witch Week, I had to spend Halloween in a huge old-fashioned school, where I was given worms in custard to eat; I now live in the house in The Ogre DownstairsFire and Hemlock began manifesting around me as I wrote it; Drowned Ammet caused me to be in a boat marooned on a sudden island and then be suspected of being a terrorist; and I am still recovering from the broken neck I got out of writing The Lives of Christopher Chant.’”

In Carol Muske Dukes’ 2001 novel, Life After Death, the main character’s husband dies of a heart attack on a tennis court. Shortly before the book was published, her husband, the actor David Dukes, died of a heart attack on a tennis court. He had never been diagnosed with heart disease; there were no warning signals before that day.

I asked my Facebook friends if their fiction has ever played itself out in the world.

In a less tragic echo of Muske Dukes’ experience, one friend wrote, “I was writing a novel about a woman whose ex-husband was a crazy amateur cyclist who broke his collarbone, which led to custody schedule changes that were highly relevant to the plot. A week after I came up with that, my husband broke his hip and pelvis while riding his bike. It was enough to put me off the novel almost permanently.”

Another friend shared that she had written a novel based on her high school friends and had put two of her straight girlfriends in a romantic relationship. She found out years later that those friends had indeed been in a long relationship after high school. “I had no idea that either of them leaned towards the ladies,” she told me, “so I was surprised that I had written a real life story line for them!” She said that at first, she was creeped out by this, but came to realize “our creative minds have great knowledge we’re not always conscious of.”

Jenn Crowell, author of novels including Etched on Me (which she wrote when she was my MFA student), writes, “I do find that once I embark on writing a particular piece or about a particular subject, I find life and art entwining in strange ways during the duration of that project’s process. (This sounds incredibly woo, which I am incredibly not, so I’m kinda snickering at myself as I type this.) Biggest example: Etched on Me, which we worked on together. Here I am writing about a young mother fighting to prove she’s not damaged goods due to mental illness/sexual abuse, and lo and behold, what happens to me smack in the middle of writing it? A situation and ensuing struggle that are a mirror-image of that plot (where justice equals proving that one *has* been damaged). Wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it’s a curious comfort to be in solidarity with your protagonist. I guess sometimes the book teaches you what you need to know.”

I can’t explain any of this, of course. It definitely feels pretty “woo,” but then again, much of the writing process does–who knows where stories really come from? Who knows how characters come to take on their own lives? It’s all very mysterious. I don’t necessarily think this is a case of writers being more attuned to the ethers than the average person. I don’t think it’s about writers wielding some sort of magical power (other than a hefty dose of magical thinking, perhaps). These coincidences between fiction and life could all be random, without any larger pattern or meaning. But I do know that language itself has power. In the beginning was the Word. When we play with words, we tap into something much bigger than ourselves.

One of my favorite picture books as a child was Just Only John by Jack Kent. In it, John buys a penny magic spell, not knowing what sort of magic it holds. It turns out that when anyone calls John a name—”Bunny,” “my little lamb”–he turns into that thing. It made sense to me. I knew even then that language could profoundly change a person, down to their very molecular structure.

The phrase “Speak of the devil and he’ll appear” makes me a little nervous as a writer, even though I don’t believe in the devil. I certainly don’t hold Carol Muske Dukes culpable for her husband’s death, but I’ll admit that I have hesitated at times to write about bad things happening to my characters–especially their children–for fear it will come true in real life. I’ve always tried to push past this resistance, though; I know writing is a safe place to deal with fears, to address the darker corners of our world and our selves, the What Ifs that scare and intrigue us the most. If I didn’t have writing as an outlet, who knows where all this fretting would channel itself? Still, I can’t help but shiver a little–with pleasure, with terror–at the power of the pen. I think part of me will always wonder if my characters are going to come knocking on my door.

Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011. Brandeis had two books published in 2017: a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press) and a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press.) She teaches in the low-residency MFA programs at Antioch University in Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College and is editor-in-chief of Tiferet Journal.


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