What are the unique challenges of writing nonfiction compared with writing fiction? Interview by “With Five Questions”

With fiction you can do just about anything. You can suspend reality, and the bigger the lie is, the more believable it is to some extent. With fiction, the writer is bound only by the bounds of his own imagination. It’s like an artist with a blank canvas. You start with nothing and slowly but deliberately fill the canvas and bring the picture to life.

Nonfiction is a little more restrictive. Nonfiction is sort of like paint-by-number. You’ve got a pre-established set of lines and you just have to paint inside the lines. You might get away with changing up the colors a little bit, but you’ve got to stay in the lines. Nonfiction is reality. You’re just re-telling what has already happened. Now, as an author you can take certain liberties and change up the scenery. Maybe you make it raining in a scene where it was a sunny day. Maybe the people involved don’t remember where a certain conversation that is being recounted took place, so you have to create a scene where there was not one. With a work of fiction, you get to create the people and everything about them. With nonfiction, you have to get to know the people you’re writing about and try to convey a factual representation of them as best you can.

With Conversations on the Bench, I was able to obtain the crux of the lessons and the conversations through interviews with one of the characters in the book. There may not have been a record of exactly when the conversation took place or who else may have been there or in what circumstance the conversation came up or exactly what was said in the conversation. So, as the author, going back to the artist example, I had a paint-by-number that had some missing lines. I had to create those missing lines, then fill in inside the lines with the right color and the right amount of that color. It was certainly a challenge for me going from fiction to a factually-based storyline. You’ve got to know the people you’re writing about pretty well. It took me time and a lot of telephone conversations to get the story from Robbie and get to the point where I felt comfortable that I knew him and Sebastian.



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