In a recent New York Times T magazine article, Holly Brubach, a writer I admire and a friend of Tanaquil Le Clercq, took umbrage at my audacity for depicting the life of the late great ballerina and fifth wife of George Balanchine in my forthcoming novel, The Master’s Muse. Brubach contends that fiction which imagines the lives of “real, usually famous people” aren’t novels at all, but a sort of lesser form, “custom-made for a culture fixated on celebrity.” Examples she cites are Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife: A Novel and Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. I assume she would include Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, two recent books in the category that have captivated many readers.
The fact is fiction is always a representation of life, sometimes the lives of famous people. I’ll admit that lately there do seem to be more of these stories about women, by women. This makes sense, since we, as a gender, are still catching up to men in bringing our attention and understanding to women’s lives. Of course we imagine the personal lives of our female subjects; historically, most women’s lives played out in the private arena. One commonality of a number of these new novels is their foregrounding of the relationships of their subjects with lovers or husbands. But this isn’t exclusive to fiction written by women. Love has always been a predominant literary theme and remains at the center of human experience.
Fiction connects: past and present; the great and the small; the surface with the depths. Fiction brings out the innermost, invisible springs of life that cannot be revealed in factual narratives. In fiction, public life means nothing without its private double. Fiction seeks to represent human experience as it is lived and as it reverberates in our hopes, fears, dreams, and memories. So much of our lives are internal. The art of fiction has claimed—more than anything else—this internal ground as its own.
According to Brubach, this is exactly why we should keep our hands off the lives of the famous. We can’t see into their minds. I was especially “brazen,” Brubach wrote, to invent thoughts for my Le Clercq character, in the first person no less, because the real Le Clercq was fiercely private. But this sort of invention is the blood of fictional narrative—of the kind of truth fiction unlocks. We spend our days thinking about and struggling to create emotional truths. We look at facts and shut ourselves in our writing rooms and imagine the things facts suggest.
When I came upon Le Clercq’s story I was awestruck: by her beauty and artistry and the disability she endured from the polio that stole her art and mobility; by the magnitude of her love for Balanchine, which at first I could not comprehend. I had to learn, by research and empathy, why he betrayed her as he did. And I felt, as fiction writers do when they recognize their subjects, that I could write the story because I too was betrayed by a beloved husband, I too lived the challenges of an artistic life, and I knew about polio through my father’s polio. Personal identification and research were my access to the emotional life I then imagined. And I bet my fellow writers—Curtis, Ann, Paula, and Nancy among them—would say they felt similarly about their subjects.
What novels do that biographies don’t is get at truths by penetrating the facts, by going deeper to what’s underneath fact, through invention. Tanaquil Le Clercq left no memoir. I hope we will have a biography someday, but it will not tell me the things about her I most wanted to know.
In school I didn’t like history because the actual people were cut off from me. I couldn’t wait to get home and dive into a novel, where I could see into the consciousness of people living exceptional, painful, and joyous lives. I read in private, as others do, apart from the one-dimensional surface of life. In literature, all bets are off but the truth of the work. Fiction mines the visible world, seeking to grasp what is complicated and difficult to say. And all writers can hope is that once it’s on the page, readers will respond.
Varley O’Connor is the author of three novels. She teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing at Kent State University and for the Northeast Ohio Universities Consortium M.F.A. program. Master’s Muse is set for May from Scribner.