The new book Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists, out this month from Bloomsbury, includes a lengthy interview with me about my writing process for my second novel, Lost Son, which novelizes the life of Rainer Maria Rilke.
A snippet from my interview with the book's editor Michael Lackey can be read below. But all the conversations in this volume fascinate and inspire, and I'm pleased to join the company of numerous other novelists whose work I greatly respect: Julia Alvarez, Russell Banks, Madison Smartt Bell, Michael Cunningham, Anita Diamant, Bruce Duffy, Ron Hansen, Sherry Jones, Rebecca Kanner, Kate Moses, Joyce Carol Oates, Lance Olsen, Jay Parini, Joanna Scott, and Edmund White.
Lackey: What’s the difference between [the] especially good [Rilke] biographies and your novel?M. Allen Cunningham: I think in part it’s this dual dimension in Lost Son, in which Rilke’s story is constantly overlaid by a more personal story of this figure in the literary future dialoguing with this ghost. Certainly, there are informational things to be found in Lost Son that can be obtained from the factual record too. Readers will come away from my novel knowing a lot about the factual circumstances of Rilke’s life. But Rilke’s story as fiction, as this relentlessly complex human narrative that is sensual in detail, poetic in perspective, intimately imagined, and aesthetically configured as a series of rhyming biographical events — that amounts to a contribution to the imaginative record concerning Rilke. I think that’s something worth making special note of in any discussion about biographical fiction. With any life-story that’s been around for some time, that’s been passed along in various forms down a few generations, we develop a historical record and, alongside that, we develop a complementary imaginative record, a body of understanding that is somewhat folkloric — disarming, alluring, complicating — in its effects. Which is not to say that this imaginative record is always necessarily unfactual. In the case of good biographical novels, it often cleaves very closely to facts while taking logical imaginative liberties. I can think of any number of serious biographical novels that contribute greatly to the imaginative record — DeLillo’s Libra, about Lee Harvey Oswald, comes immediately to mind, and so does Brian Hall’s I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, about Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea. This imaginative record is something to value in itself, because it exemplifies mind meeting mind aesthetically across time — that is, in the most complex and characteristically human way. We should value the imaginative approach as well, however, for the reason that such an approach can actually contribute to the factual record. These things intersect and interrelate and enrich each other.
Order Truthful Fictions HERE.