Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Awesome Book Alert: 'Hand Me Down' and the Shelter of Fiction

By Alison Peters
Wed, Jun 13, 2012 at 3:09 PM

How do you take your life story and craft it into a compelling, interesting novel? It can be challenging to write your story in nonfiction, especially when dealing with issues that would scar most people into silence, or at least willful memory loss. And after the Oprah-James Frey smackdown, the world began paying close attention to every little detail in a memoir, checking for authenticity, for anything that didn’t appear to be true to real life. So you can understand Melanie Thorne’s concern as she wrote Hand Me Down, which chronicles a childhood that started out just fine, but quickly spiraled into a twisted mess of circumstances. Fiction, the first-time novelist noted in an interview, “provides a bit of shelter,” more room to explore a story and craft it as your own, rather than sticking to the confines of what actually happened. “In fiction, I was free to adjust, delete, add, or consolidate in order to serve the greater truths of the story. I had also discovered that fiction, when it’s done well, has the power to tell those truths more cleanly, and often more clearly, than ‘real life.’” Thorne didn’t hesitate to sacrifice the unnecessary details of “what really happened” for the sake of larger emotional truths, to create a narrative from incidents in the life of a young girl.

So Hand Me Down’s protagonist, wiser-than-her-teenaged-years Liz, finds herself cast out from her family home after mom marries an ex-con on the kind of probation that does not allow him to cohabitate with children. The solution is to move Liz and little sister Jamie out so their mom can live the life she’s always wanted.

MelanieThorne_Credit_Lisa_Farrer.jpg
  • Lisa Farrer
If it sounds harsh, that's because it is. Reveals Thorne, “Like Liz, I felt abandoned by my mother, and it took me many years to understand that it was not my fault I had to leave my home at fourteen. For a long time I wondered what I had done wrong, as so many kids in these situations do, and I beat myself up over the ways I could have tried harder to be good enough to keep.” Thorne admits that she did consider the impact writing this story would have on her family, and so made an effort to “create round and complicated characters by considering the points of view of the people who inspired the characters.” Stepping outside herself to recreate these familial characters also allowed Thorne to see the qualities they all have in common, and explore the “genetic and environmental” similarities as themes running through the novel. And in this case, the writing process itself helped Thorne work through her own pain and realize her parents' issues were solely theirs, that “their errors were not my burden or responsibility.” Not that it was easy: Early versions of the novel showed little sympathy toward Mom, who had to be more redeemable before readers could be reasonably expected to even finish the story. “For the good of the book, I had to take a step back and figure out why Liz’s mother had made this choice … I could see the larger circumstances that led to a heartbreaking course of events for all of us, and understood that it was never our parents’ intention to hurt me or my sister.”

Jamie moves back in with their estranged dad, an alcoholic making no attempt at recovery, while Liz watches helplessly from afar, doing everything she can think of to keep her little sister safe while herself bouncing from home to home – those of family members, church acquaintances, her best friend’s family — before finally settling with her mom’s sister, the wanderlusting, super-cool Aunt Tammy. An ‘angel’ based on Thorne’s real-life savior-aunt, Tammy helps Liz become a normal kid again, while her nonfiction counterpart helped Thorne begin to heal and turn her novel into a truly beautiful work of fiction, rather than a YA horror story. “I didn’t immediately forgive everything,” Thorne elaborates, “But in widening my lens I discovered that no one person was to blame. Through writing Hand Me Down I really grasped the uncomfortable truth that people, even good people, can do cruel things. But writing this book also gave me an appreciation for our capacity to forgive.”

After graduating from UC Davis' MFA program, Thorne stepped out into the literary business world, where her agent and editor made modest changes to get the book published. Thorne astutely noted that, “in MFA programs and creative writing classes, the focus is not on getting published, but on improving your craft as a writer, with the implicit understanding that the hard work and practice will help you on the path toward publication. The heart of these programs is the process of writing rather than the business of writing, which are two different things.” Taking everything into consideration, empathizing with her characters and allowing them to have faults as well as positive qualities, and eliminating the bulk of her anger towards her parents and the situation they created for the family, Thorne was able to produce an engaging, heart-tugging, and ultimately inspiring novel, and move on.

Hand Me Down ends on a bittersweet note, but Thorne’s life is in a sweet spot. “I used to tell myself the sweetest revenge would be to live a successful, happy life. And while it no longer feels like revenge, I’m doing my best.” Even better? “My mom and I are great friends now,” she admits. And if fiction can heal that relationship, there’s nothing a good book can’t fix.

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