Fair Game Fiction

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
That’s a familiar statement to anyone who loves literature. Pull a book off the shelf, or grab one from the top of your TBR pile and you’ll find some version of that very phrase opposite whatever dedication the author’s decided to put alongside it. Unless of course, you’ve picked up an altogether different form of fiction.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a number of books wearing their inspiration right on their dust jackets. Now I’m not talking memoir or even Historical Fiction. Real Person Fiction (RPF) is something altogether different – unlike Hilary Mantel and Sarah Perry, authors of RPF don’t tend to be too concerned about historical accuracy. Critics may deride it as nothing more than fan fiction finding the mainstream, but some of the world’s most famous literary works could be considered as such. Shakespeare’s history plays are a great example – new words weren’t the only thing old Will invented when he wrote Anthony and Cleopatra. He added characters and events to suit his narrative… and aside from that, I doubt he spent too much time fact-checking Plutarch before he shamelessly plagiarised his 1579 work.
Before they defied societies expectations with Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the Brontë sisters practiced their craft writing what could only be described as Napoleonic fan fiction. And back in 1984, long before Curtis Sittenfeld started sketching out spurious scenarios for former First Ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt appeared in print as an Agatha Christie-esque figure. The author? Her son, Elliott, who created twenty books in total starring a fictional version of his mother; starting with the aptly titled Murder and the First Lady.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that writers mine their personal lives for inspiration. But what they present to us is still FICTION. If they’re upfront and honest about it, does it make much difference if they borrow from figures in the public eye instead? I’ll leave you with that thought, and three of my favourite pieces of Real Person Fiction.
Rodham – Curtis Sittenfeld
No-one wants to be reminded of what happened during the 2016 American presidential election, least of all Curtis Sittenfeld. She was so floored by ‘he who shall not be named’ weaselling his way into the White House, that she wrote this piece of counterfactual fiction. A Sliding Doors of political fiction, asking what could have happened to Mrs. Hilary Clinton if she’d refused the ring, and remained Ms. Rodham.
Shirley: A Novel – Susan Scarf
The 2014 novel invents an Autumn of events in the life of celebrated horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson. Through an imagined visit by a fictional couple to the home of Shirley and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, we learn about the author’s real life and writing process, whilst becoming embroiled in a thriller inspired by literary legend’s own work.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler
Beautiful and spirited Zelda Sayre was so much more than muse to the man that would become her husband. Some – including Zelda herself – believe that his most famous work, The Great Gatsby, actually ripped off some of her own writing. Even though this is fiction, this book gives a voice to a fascinating and sadly often overlooked woman.