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25 April
The Back Page Viewpoints

Writing Fiction Too Convincingly

After completing my first novel, I didn’t mind when people came up to me after a reading and talked to me as if I had personally experienced the wars between Palestine and Israel in the 1960s. I must admit it was flattering after so many years of being a mere shadow on a landscape upon which my mother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother were born. My mother’s family were native Jewish Palestinians, dating far back to the beginning of the nineteenth century when my great-grandmother and great-grandfather settled in ancient Jerusalem, beginning our family. My grandfather founded and ran the very first department store in old Jerusalem, my uncles, aunts, and mother all fought in the Jewish underground from the 1930s through the creation of the State of Israel. Some branches of the family even dated as far back to Palestine as the 1600s. Though I had never personally experienced the causalities and sorrows of the constant war in Jerusalem, I felt a rightful heir to its history, current and past. So I did not bother to correct the many people who assumed that, like my main character, I had absconded behind the borders as a young girl of only fourteen, running off with an American diplomat’s son. I didn’t of course do any of those things and was usually safe inside my grandmother’s home when I visited Israel as a child, the fighting far away.

During my many visits to my mother’s family house in Jerusalem from my home in America, I wasn’t even permitted to go into the streets if there was news of another skirmish. Still, I relished the new self-definition my first novel gave me. Though I lived in America, my mother took me every three years to spend summers in Jerusalem since I was a very young child. When I published, Edges. I was suddenly recognized as a person who had a “voice” in a history where, before I had felt an outsider, only a child in a vastly fascinating, though violent and foreign, land. I had finally laid claim to my heritage by writing a fiction convincing enough for people to think I had lived its history myself.

I had no idea where this new presumptuousness would lead until I wrote and published my second novel, Hysteria. This time, Hysteria, I wrote about a psychotic woman incarcerated inside a mental institution in 1974.  Set in the turbulent 1970s, HYSTERA is a story of a young woman who retreats from the outside world into a world of delusion and the private terrors of a New York City Psychiatric Hospital.  Suffering from a sexual delusion and just plain “crazy,” I had hoped my character would be affecting and moving to readers. I took great pains trying to describe her inner life as authentically and convincingly as I could.  I wanted to make her feel “real” to the reader, the issues of mental illness were so pressing for me, I had witnessed too many people suffer under society’s stigma.

What I didn’t bank on was that readers, as with Edges, would immediately assume I was writing pure autobiography. That the mentally ill character was really me.  I was introduced as a “memoirist” many times (thought the novel is written as a narrative in third person) and everywhere I read, people looked at me with great consternation and concern. Many said things like “I am so sorry you went into a mental hospital when you were young. I do hope this writing was therapeutic for you.” What? I wanted to scream. It’s not me, I’m not her. No I was NEVER crazy like that. But the more I protested, the more people thought I was only being defensive, nodding but not believing me, “Sure, I understand,” they would retort.

I don’t have a clear answer for the contradictory pleasures in creating a fiction narrative that convinces readers that you, the writer, are, indeed, the main character. It is both a fine compliment and a curse that people believe your fiction is so “real” and you can congratulate yourself for achieving such convincing, authentic-sounding prose. Perhaps this confusion on the reader’s part reflects a more profound problem in our story-telling world that now includes reality TV shows, and a myriad of confessional tell-all memoirs, rarely separating truth from fiction.

But it is a given these days as a published writer, that although you’ve published your work as “a novel,” the first question in nearly every interview and book club visit is whether the book is based on a true story. How one answers that has proven to me to be a lot more complicated than I once imagined. Where does truth end and fiction begin when, often, if a book is good, it will tell a deeper truth through inventing a fiction to contain it, or as Picasso once said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” In such a blurring of boundaries, there are a lot of spaces the reader will fill in. How an author will suffer or delight in the mix-up seems a new challenge.

About Author Leora Skolkin-Smith

Leora Skolkin-Smith was born in Manhattan in 1952, and spent her childhood between Pound Ridge, New York, and Israel, traveling with her family to her mother’s birthplace in Jerusalem every three years. She earned her BA and MFA and was awarded a teaching fellowship for graduate work, all at Sarah Lawrence.

Her first published novel, Edges was edited and published by the late Grace Paley for Ms. Paley’s own imprint at Glad Day books.

Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/ Faulkner Award and The PEN/ Ernest Hemingway Award by Grace Paley; a National Women Studies Association Conference Selection; a Bloomsbury Review Pick, 2006: “Favorite Books of the Last 25 Years”; a Jewish Book Council Selection, 2005; and won the 2008 Earphones Award for an original audio production narrated by Tovah Feldshuh. In addition, it is currently in development as a feature film, produced by Triboro Pictures.

Leora was recently a panelist, on “Israel in Fiction” at the The Miami International Book Fair, 2006, and a panelist, on “War in Writing”, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, 2006. She is currently a contributing editor to and her critical essays have been published in The Washington Post, The National Book Critic’s Circle’s Critical Mass, and other places.

Her latest novel, Hystera, will be published by Fiction Studio Books this November.

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November 28, 2014
Libby O'Connell - The American Plate
Starts: 12:00 pm
Ends: November 28, 2014 - 1:00 pm
Location: 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco
November 29, 2014
Family Day - Kat Beyer, Kathryn Otoshi, Kathryn Gibbs Davis, & More
Starts: 10:00 am
Ends: November 29, 2014 - 4:00 pm
Location: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera
Market to Table: Cooking Demonstrations by Cookbook Authors
Starts: 10:30 am
Ends: November 29, 2014 - 12:30 pm
Location: Book Passage at the Ferry Building, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco
Description: On Saturday mornings, chefs and cookbook authors lead free cooking demonstrations using seasonal ingredients from the Farmers Market. Join them in the CUESA kitchen (North Arcade) for tips, recipes, and a sample. Book Passage will be there with the books.
Evan Morgan Willis - Thorn
Starts: 1:00 pm
Ends: November 29, 2014 - 2:00 pm
Location: 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco
Christina Stevens - Love: The Saint and the Seeker
Starts: 1:00 pm
Ends: November 29, 2014 - 2:00 pm
Location: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera
November 30, 2014
Sunday Morning Storytime with Christopher Smith
Starts: 11:00 am
Ends: November 30, 2014 - 12:00 pm
Location: Author Appearance - , “” Book Passage - 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera
Description: Sunday Morning Storytime with Christopher Smith at Book Passage, Corte Madera
Starting September 12!
Sundays • 11:00 am • Free
Summer is over and Christopher is back! Singer-songwriter Christopher Smith has been writing music and performing in the Bay Area for over 20 years. Smith writes well-crafted story songs that aim for the heart. Children of all ages—and adults—love him!

These events are free and take place at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, unless otherwise noted. For information or to reserve autographed books, call 415-927-0960 or go to
December 1, 2014
Left Coast Writers Literary Salon
Starts: 7:00 pm
Ends: December 1, 2014 - 9:00 pm
Location: Book Passage - 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera
Description: Left Coast Writers®
A Literary Salon Led by Linda Watanabe McFerrin
1st Monday each month • 7:00-9:00 pm • $120 per year
Left Coast Writers meetings provide literary connections, support, counsel, readings, writing tips, literary chat, unabashed networking, and great fun. Many local authors are active members of this group. Meetings feature presentations by Bay Area literary figures. In addition, LCW hosts a variety of other activities to launch the books of members, to explore publishing
alternatives, and to network with others in the industry.




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