Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reality Fiction

Sharon Wildwind

I have a confession to make: I rarely read outside of genre fiction.

This choice has more to do with reading time available than for any prejudice against literature or, even worse, Literature. That’s why, several times, I passed up a book on my local library’s “staff’s picks” shelf until I finally said, “What the heck” and checked it out.

The book is Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). It is a maybe, maybe not work of fiction about The Brown siblings, Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie. What made reading this book weird was not only that it was impossible to tell where real life left off and fiction began, but that I have, however tenuous, a connection to the Browns.

There is a slight statistical possibility that they performed during one of the rare times I was privileged to see the Louisiana Hayride in person. Without a doubt I heard them on the radio, when the Hayride was broadcast over KWKH Radio, Shreveport, Louisiana. We’re talking icons of my childhood here.

Bass thanks the Brown family for a five-year association, so I assume that this book was written with their help and blessing. Since the other major characters—Gentleman Jim Reeves, Mary Reeves, and Elvis Presley—have long since departed this world, I assume as well that their estates had no problems with the book. In fact, I found the book an enjoyable read, a fascinating glimpse not only into country music life, but into the hard-scrabble life of a logging family in 1950s Arkansas. My two questions were what was true, and what wasn’t? And did it make any difference if I couldn't tell? In these days when photos can be “shopped” and reality shows are scripted, has that distinction between truth and fiction disappeared? I don’t know.

It also brought to mind one of the favorite writer questions. Is is okay if I use the names of real people, places, brands, and events in my fiction? If you’re on any sort of writers’ list, you know that this question reappears with such regularity that you can set your calendar by it.

The only absolute negative answer has to do with song lyrics. While you can use the titles of songs, you can not—absolutely can not—use any song lyrics, of any length, without written permission from the person or company who owns the copyright. And good luck tracking down that person or company. You can, however, bend yourself around the rule with occasional obscure references, such as “In the background, the Beatles complained about how hard the day had been.”

As far as any other real-world reference, the general consensus is usually if the reference is positive, go ahead and use it. If it’s negative, don’t. So if you want to mention that your protagonist enjoys a certain brand of soda pop, fine. If poison is going to be administered in that same soda pop, forget it.

If the reference is in passing, “I got home just in time to see George Stephanopoulos start a rundown of the latest political scandal in Washington.” you’re okay, but if George S. is to be your amateur detective, you’re not okay. There is also the school of thought that the more real-world references, the more you date—and likely out-date—your book.

The problem is that general consensus, even among writers, isn’t the law. And publishers are becoming very, very wary. Some are requiring that an author have written permission for every real reference used.

The murders take place in Madison, Wisconsin? You’ll need a letter from the Madison City Council saying that is okay with them. The protagonist watches Good Morning, America? That better be backed up by an approval letter from the ABC legal department. Your street-wise detective stops off for a burger and fries from a recognized establishment? You’ll have to have the golden stamp of approval before that happens.

Is it any wonder that writers go a little crazy?

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Quote for the week:
There was a certain sound, a ringing, that a fully tempered saw made when it had achieved that absolute perfect edge. . . . The sound they listened for—the perfect blade—held an eerie resonance, the faint sirenlike echo of a high harmonic that was a little different from the tempered harmony the Browns were already learning to achieve with their voices.
~Rick Bass, Nashville Chrome

3 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

I rely on my publisher's legal eagles to make the final call on using "real" names places. The lines are indeed blurry, but I've been told that as long as you don't say anything negative ("the food at Real Place was terrible") you're probably in the clear.

But to be on the safe side, I gave my town in the Orchard series a fictional name (although anyone who knows the neighborhood could identify it in an instant), and created a completely fictitous restaurant for it (which the real town needs anyway). I've even heard from the "real" police chief, who had no complaints (but I did make him one of the good guys).

Lynn in Texas said...

Interesting points, Sharon. I also read NASHVILLE CHROME and felt the same way--quite a bit of blurring of reality and fiction! But I enjoyed it immensely.

The book made me curious, so after searching Amazon, I added another to my Wish List--did you know Maxine Brown wrote a memoir titled LOOKING BACK, which is available in paperback? Hope to get around to reading her version in the near future!

Sharon Wildwind said...

Shelia, I believe your character refers to a book I have on my shelf: "Apples" by Roger Yepsen. It's been a God-send when I have to make those tricky decisions of would it be better to eat this apple or cook with it?

Lynn, we probably visited some of the same sites. I only hope Maxine is happier in real life than the character in the book.