There are differences among Roman á clef novels, memoirs, and fiction. For Mercy, I chose places I was familiar with partly because my characters at times usurped those places for their own, partly because the mundane is what inspires me.
Stories reveal themselves to me not unlike the experience of watching a movie---except it’s all in my head. I was born in 1962 and so became one of the earliest generations to see movies and television stream regularly, these images captured, and in part, informed my imagination.
A Roman á clef typically uses fiction to disguise the author’s descriptions of real people, finding the key between the fictional character and the real life person. Memoir, although similar to autobiography in that the events are understood to be true, is told as a memory as opposed to reported events. Fiction is imaginary. And yet…when we write what we know there are times when memory and imagination collide.
Once, I was fortunate enough to take a writing workshop with the great Jamaica Kincaid, author of Annie John, A Small Place, See Now Then, and many others. She had us do an exercise where we wrote down a memory. Afterwards, she had us change the ending. A light stayed on with me for twenty years after that workshop. And I began to see my fiction in that light. What if this happened instead of that…
Where would the story go?
Often, when I feel myself stuck in a story, where my characters aren’t cooperating, when I write for four hours and have to drag the entire lot into that virtual trash can at the bottom right corner of my computer, when I’ve convinced myself I will never write another decent sentence and in fact have never written a decent sentence and want to either throw my computer against the wall or eat those stupid Milano cookies I don’t even like but I buy for my daughter---I take a breath (since apparently ativan is addictive and my doctor won’t prescribe me any therefore forcing me to rely on things like breathing and other zen like tricks).
After that breath, with my heart rate reduced, I am able to extricate myself from that cycle of hell by recognizing what I’d been doing wrong. I’d been trying to get my characters to behave. To be nice. To be likeable. How boring. Who’s going to want to read that? I had to change the endings. The characters must not do what I’d like them to, what they should do, or even what I’ve seen people do in real life.
They are messy. They are selfish. They are wounded. And they behave accordingly. It’s what they do with their messy, selfish, hurtful behavior---how they react to one another---how they grow and change from it, that matters.
None of the characters in Mercy are based on real people. But life happens and I write what I know and things happened and I changed the endings. Carly is her own person. She popped into my head, refused to retreat, declared herself and forced me to write about her. She is no more “me” than Bea or Astrid or Dani or Abby or Guy or Scott or Adam is me. Yet they are all me. Every one of them. Everything about them is me.
Rebecca Chianese is an author living and working in New York. She is the author of two screenplays, “Daffodil Hill” and “Waltzing With My Father” which were accepted into the Hudson Valley Reading Series. Her plays, “The Session” and “That’s Life” were both produced off-broadway in NYC. Mercy is her first novel.
Rebecca was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She lives with her husband and children in the Historical Hudson Valley. Her love of reading began with the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza and she has been writing as long as she was able to hold a pencil. Walking along the Hudson River is where most of her characters come to life and boss her around until she tells their stories.