At last, a reunion with Jonathan Hodes, neurosurgeon in Louisville, Kentucky, and a good friend from my UCSF days in San Francisco, who had a major role in my memoir Dogmeat. We met some sixteen months after the book was published. Until then his silence about my book was deafening. Had I offended him in any way?
Writers can’t help but aggrieve those closest to them. If you write about what you know -and you should – and if what you write is interesting and edgy, it is inevitable that some acquaintance, friend, relative might be displeased with how they were depicted.
An extreme example of this comes from humorist David Sedaris who, in of his essays, recounted how his father, upset at a neighbor, took revenge by defecating into his well. After the essay was published, when David visited his parents, he was stunned that they had transformed themselves into a Middle Eastern couple, mom in a hijab, dad with a turban and fake beard. When he asked what was going on, his dad screamed back at him, “you’re killing us!”
A more subtle example could be found in Paula McLain’s A Paris Wife which vividly describes how Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, was hurt when he excluded her from The Sun Also Rises, his autobiographic first novel. Instead the protagonist of the story, Ernest’s alter ego, focused his romantic attention on another woman, one whom Hadley knew well.
In my own memoir Dogmeat, I described real events using real names, and I had countless instances where I worried about offending those I mentioned. In fact before sending it to print, I made a final edit in which I removed any potentially offensive material that was non-essential in the narrative. Overall, the final version of the book would not have appeared scandalous to an average reader, but might have still upset some of those mentioned.
After publication, for many months I received no feedback from those prominently mentioned. Eventually I heard back from Dr. Wilson, the main subject of the book, in a roundabout way and it was favorable. I had no direct response from my first wife, another main character. I took her silence as a favorable response. That left Jonathan. He was my best friend in those days, and much of what I said about him should have been flattering. Still, even thought I promptly announced the publication of the book to him via text message, he remained silent. The more time passed, the more I became concerned.
Then all of a sudden I received an unexpected text message from him announcing that he was in San Francisco and he would like to see me. I met him at my San Francisco house with much anticipation. We greeted each other warmly and reminisced about old times over glasses of champagne. He told me that he thought my book was good and accurate. He expressed no ill feelings about it.I was relieved.
Still, the fact that it took him sixteen months to extend this gesture suggested that he needed time to process the book.
The lesson I learned from the experience is what all writers know: when it comes to potentially offensive material, if you have confidence in what you write, you have the let chips fall where they may. With Dogmeat it worked out well. With my next book the task is easier because it is fictional and no-one is mentioned by their real name. Nonetheless, there may still be some who will recognize themselves and might take offense. So be it.