Why write a novel instead of a memoir?

Lucy Jane Bledsoe, author of A Thin Bright Line, explains why a novel is the best way to honor the true story of her aunt and namesake, providing a glimpse of the woman behind her accomplishments. 

The line between fiction and memoir has been blurred in recent years, putting many memoirists on the defense about the role of imagination in their books. How much of a story should be supported by documentation? How much creativity is fair game in memoir storytelling? Is it okay to shift timeframes or make up dialogue, and still call a book “nonfiction”?

I could have called my new novel, A Thin Bright Line, a memoir. The story, based on ten years in the life of my aunt and namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe, is steeped in fact and eight years of research.

Almost exactly 50 years ago, on September 29, 1966, Lucybelle Bledsoe, my dad’s sister and my namesake, died in an apartment fire. I was 9 years old.

As I grew up, I could only glean a few intriguing tidbits about my namesake. I knew that, like so many other women of her generation, she used the cover of WWII to shoot off the Arkansas farm and run off to New York. I knew she wanted to go to law school, and when my grandfather forbid it, she studied for and passed the bar exam anyway, without the benefit of law school. My mother told me that she was extremely independent, that even in the 50s and 60s, Lucybelle didn’t allow men to hold doors open for her.

One day, about 8 years ago, a friend suggested I Google my aunt. I didn’t expect to find anything. After all, Lucybelle was just a farm girl who died in 1966.

Lucybelle Bledsoe

Lucybelle Bledsoe

What I discovered astonished me. Lucybelle Bledsoe was a key player in a top secret, though recently declassified, Cold War project involving studying the properties of ice. The fear at the time was that the Russians would attack via the Arctic, and the government wanted to be ready. She became fluent in Russian as part of her work and had top security clearance.

Lucybelle Bledsoe was also a queer woman who carried on, despite the McCarthy Era fears about hiring gay people in highly classified positions. The work she and the Army Corps of Engineer scientists did from 1956 to 1966 included pulling the first ever complete ice cores from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. These cores are still being studied today and are considered the beginning of climate change research.

So why not write this story as a biography? Or a memoir of my time with my aunt?

It’s a very good question. I could have used the biography form to write about the convergence of the Cold War, the history of climate change research, and LGBT history. And certainly my novel embraces all these topics.

But what gripped me most about Lucybelle’s story was her courage, the way she made her way to Greenwich Village at the tender age of 20 in 1944, how she found women lovers, and how she managed a queer life in spite of the times, in spite of McCarthy, and while holding a highly classified government job. I am most interested in her heart, who she loved, how she found her strength and bravery.

14716171_10209163985610764_6157701390193291084_nSo I interviewed everyone who knew her. I found the name of her partner, the woman who mourned her death. I sent for her death certificate and even interviewed some firemen and neighbors who’d been on the scene of the fire that killed her. I interviewed her coworkers and childhood friends. I traveled to Arkansas, Chicago, New York, and New Hampshire and haunted all the places she’d lived.

A Thin Bright Line is based on a wealth of fact. But I imagined how she felt in between the facts. I imagined the words she spoke in her most intimate moments. I do believe that imagination, in concert with research, can reach a deeper truth.  

Bledsoe-Lucy-2016-cLucy Jane Bledsoe is an award-winning science writer and novelist for adults and children. Her many books include The Ice Cave: A Woman’s Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic, The Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica, This Wild Silence, and Working Parts. A native of Portland, Oregon, she lives in Berkeley, California.

 

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