Time Capsule: June 2003

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Dorothy Allison’s best-selling 1992 autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina (Plume) was nominated for a National Book Award and adapted into a controversial cable-TV movie by Anjelica Huston. Her second novel, Cavedweller (Plume), published in 1998, has recently been adapted for the stage by playwright Kate Ryan, and debuts April 18 at the New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. Fourth St., New York, NY 10003, 212-460-5475, <>).

Both books draw heavily on Allison’s real life and family. Much like “Bone,” the title character in Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison was born in 1949 in Greenville, SC, to a 15-year-old unwed mother who’d dropped out of the seventh grade to work as a waitress. Growing up, like Bone, she was abused by her stepfather. But Allison emphasizes that memoir and family history are merely a springboard for her fiction.

“I come from a family full of liars. I tried to track down the facts — I interviewed cousins; I went to the newspaper and read the death notices. I found the names of uncles because they were listed as pallbearers. People in my family would get nicknames and never go back to their real names. I had three named “Butch” — none of them named that at birth.

But then I try to tell the story as if it were a brand-new experience. Don’t try to sum up what it means; let the readers figure out what it means. Stop drawing conclusions about the characters and telling the meaning of it all. The meaning is obvious if you make it real on the page.

People are afraid to fictionalize. They think they don’t have the right. Very few people can do a memoir well. If you want to make it powerful, make it into a novel.

To begin a story, you need a trigger. For me, a lot of it is memories. Sometimes, I’ll even borrow someone else’s. It’s just like lying — you keep embroidering until it bears no relationship to the original, but it has the same emotional texture as the original.

A lot of incest and abuse survivors have so much rage and grief, they don’t have the ability to step outside themselves. My trick is to make the characters be someone else.

You want to begin by creating a villain. Remember that dirtbag who dumped you right before senior prom when you’d already bought a dress to match his tuxedo? Use that SOB! Remember your indignation and hurt, and copy it over into your character. Just change a few details for the lawyers.

Steal people you love and people you hate for your story. Hating them is almost as good as loving them. I was raised in the South, so I’ve got a weakness for SOBs. SOBs mean the possibility of action. If all of your characters are good girls who go to church on Sunday morning, what can happen? I want demon-seed babies!

After you steal real people, the second part is to make them themselves. Change some essential thing — not just for the lawyers. Take something out of the picture and put something else in: What if Aunt Dot killed somebody? Who would she kill? You begin to build a different Aunt Dot, to move away from the person you know to the person you need.

I have a couple of cousins who thought Bastard was all dead truth because they recognized some parts. It’s fun to tease people about where fiction and life intersect.”

From the June 2003 Family Tree Magazine