I have to admit, when I first read the CNN article about the Holocaust memoir being a fake I was stunned that anyone would publish let alone read a book that purports to be the memories of a four-year old child. Basically, shame on anyone for thinking it might be true. This quote from the original American publisher of the book really blew my mind:
She said she could not fully research Defonseca's story before it was published because the woman claimed she did not know her parents' names, her birthday or where she was born.
"There was nothing to go on to research," she said.
Oookay, if you write a story that is impossible to prove then it must be true, right? I can't believe anyone would even say that let alone believe it.
Then over the weekend we had the fake half Native American foster child gang member drug dealer. She says she lied to help the people who really have lives as troubled as the one she claimed as her own. And again, we have a publisher that didn't even verify where she went to college. How hard is that? One phone call to the registrar just to verify a graduation date? Don't employers do this all the time?
There has been a ton of discussion at various sites on these latest rounds in the "how we can prove a memoir is true" mess which include comments about how it keeps happening. The consensus seems to be because publishers only care about money and not proving something is true. Galleycat has a quote from one editor saying that isn't so and we are all cynics for thinking otherwise but what do publishers expect us to think? If you don't take the time to verify your nonfiction author's claims (or your author's credentials regardless of genre), then how can we believe any sort of excuse you put forth? I don't care if you "fall in love" with the story. We all love good stories; some of us clearly just have higher standards for truth than others.
Of course this a wee bit more of a concern for me than others because I have a memoir out there right now. As some of you may recall, originally I wrote a novel based on my experiences working for a bush airline in Fairbanks, Alaska. My agent shopped that book last year for over six months. It's a collection of stories that together form a complete book - not a plot driven novel, but not a short story collection either. (See Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried for where I got the format from.) My agent could not sell that book. What she heard was what I had heard when I was shopping it around to get an agent - "can the author change this so it is a memoir?" That's what publishers wanted and that is what I WAS NOT going to do with that book. It has tons of conversations in it, the characters are based on compilations of people I worked with and a few scenes are fictional - things I think might have happened but certainly couldn't know if they did or not. It was not nonfiction. So I resolved to sit down and try to write a memoir from scratch, leaving the other book as a novel. Together they do form a solid record of what the aviation business in AK was like (in my experience) and all the flying in both books is true - but one is certainly fiction and one is not. What are the differences? Well - here:
1. In the memoir I establish myself early on as the narrator. I explain where I came from, where I went to college and why I studied aviation and how I got to Alaska. All of this is verifiable by school records in my hometown in FL where I went to school from kindergarten through a bachelor's degree in Aviation Management.
2. Every accident I cite in the memoir is verifiable through the NTSB aviation accident database. In the novel I wrote about some nonaccidents - days that the guys flew when it was really cold or crappy that kind of thing. In the memoir I stuck to only what I could prove. I can pull (and for a publisher will pull) every accident report so they can be compared against how I describe the facts in my manuscript.
3. I write about my grad school research in the memoir as it led me to talk to 100 commercial pilots about flying in the state. My thesis, which was accepted by the Univ of AK as part of my requirements to graduate with an MA in Northern Studies, is on the shelf there at the library. Easy enough to prove I really did the work I claim in the book.
4. The deaths I talk about in the memoir - pilots and nonpilots - can all be found in back issues of the local newspaper. I know the rough dates when everything happened and if push comes to shove, I know exactly how to find the appropriate obituaries. (I only included deaths that I could easily prove in the book as I still remember the exact names or very specific - and unusual - circumstances).
Now can any writer do this? Well no - not exactly. Part of what I can prove is due to the nature of the subject I'm writing about and I understand that. However, school records are EASY to prove and not being asked to provide them is beyond careless. And if someone in your family died recently, (as in the gang memoir) then an obituary isn't hard to find. Honestly, if you're writing a memoir you should have this stuff ready and offer it before being asked - make it easy to prove you are telling the truth so any question that ever might get raised is easily dispelled.
I do not use real names for anyone in my book, the living or dead (Except those pilots who died decades ago and are historically famous.) I don't think it's fair to the guys who crashed and died - their families don't need that - and as for the guys I worked with, well a lot of them are still flying and they don't need to have questions raised about whether or not they flew illegally in AK. I also don't use the name of the company I primarily worked for. So many of them are the same up there that it doesn't matter to a certain extent and again - I didn't think it was fair to the pilots (or the owners honestly). As it happens, my company went out of business a few years ago anyway. But, I can still provide people with the local FAA who will attest to the fact that I held the job I claim to have held and the name of the place where I worked. And if push came to shove and someone was screaming I was a total liar then I know the guys I worked with would back me up - I just don't want to make them have to do that. I figure having some federal employees verify my employment should be good enough.
So there you have it. I wrote a memoir and I have taken the time to make sure that what I wrote is not only true but verifiable. I did this because I know it was true and I don't want to listen to any idiot claim it wasn't. To me, this is just being smart. I wonder why so many other authors (and agents and publishers) who choose to write memoirs can't take the time to do the same thing.
And for the record, the only reason I wrote this memoir is because publishers would not buy the story as fiction. I still want to sell the fictional account - I think it is just as good. But right now it is the memoir that editors want, so a memoir is what I had to write.
UPDATED TO ADD: Oh this is rich: The NY Sun has an article explaining that it is just too expensive for publishers to fact check authors:
The basic answer is that it's not practical. Publishers release hundreds of books each year, most of them several hundred pages long. A publisher simply can't afford to fact-check all of those books to the standards of, say, the New Yorker, where a fact checker essentially re-reports each story.
As one person in publishing who asked not to be named said: "You couldn't get these books out the door, at least not below a $100-a-copy price point, and then nobody would buy them."
Well how about this - if an author claims to have graduated from a college then they have to provide you with certified transcripts from that college. It costs them about ten bucks but they are stamped by the registrar. Or, if someone like your brother is dead in the book then the author has to provide a certified death certificate - again costs some money but is not impossible. You were adopted? Great - copy of adoption paperwork. You were a foster child? Great - copy of paperwork. The author wrote the damn book - make them provide some backup proving it is true. That is not unreasonable or impossible and if they can't do it then you have to think twice about this wonderful story they are selling.
At the Company we didn't hire pilots unless they showed us a pilot's license; silly us, we didn't just take them on face value.