As a fiction writer, it is not uncommon to be asked: “Is that real, or did you make it up?” This was certainly true for my first novel, That Paris Year, based on my own experiences as a young woman attending the Sorbonne in the 1960s. It was assumed that the narrator, whose name, J.J., includes the same initials as my name, are one and the same person. And if that is true, the thinking goes, everything else in the book must be “real,” too. One French reader even wanted to know how my French grandmother was getting along and was shocked to learn that I didn’t have a French grandmother. J.J. did.
Many writers in many genres—essayists, travel writers, poets—to name a few, also rely on that bedrock of knowledge, personal experience, to tell their stories. But personal experience is not the same as autobiography, and, I believe, is wider, richer, and reaches deeper. It encompasses not only the events that have transpired in the writer’s life, but the other kinds of knowing she has acquired through living, travel, connecting and understanding other lives, through art, literature, history—or in the case of Melanie’s Song, especially music.
In That Paris Year J.J. sees herself as “the chronicler of her friends’ lives” and vows to find the truth in them, intuiting that the truth is more than just a summary of facts. That struggle continues in Melanie’s Song when, as a journalist, J.J. is still pursuing these stories and sees clearly that telling “just the facts” without the forbidden secrets, without the poetry, is only the sketch of a life, not a fully rendered one.
And so it is for me, as I send an invented “namesake” into worlds I know vicariously but haven’t lived—Hollywood and hippies, communes and con artists, Woodstock and the Summer of Love. In the opening of Melanie’s Song, J.J. is poised at the edge of the Pacific reflecting on where she has been and where she is going. She is endowed with a deep and spiritual connection to a native place we share, but I am also setting her free to fly into her own undiscovered territory.
From the upcoming Melanie's Song:
J.J. drew in a deep breath, ready to give herself up to the sun. Sea breeze blowing through the open car window whipped strands of dark hair across her face. Below the turnout along the coast road, rocky cliffs disappeared into a tumult of white waves, the ocean stretched endlessly in symphonies of blue, and gulls rode crests of air past islands of seaweed searching for life beneath. Closing her eyes for a moment she could still see the colors, the contours of sea. The gulls cried out, while the pounding and receding waves thrummed like her pulse. Calm down, she told herself, trying to let the beauty around her erase the fright that had just made her heart pound, willing the lingering smell of smoke from the remains of the Hi-Diddle House to clear from her nostrils.
The salt air made a delicate crust on her skin even as she tasted it. She relaxed a little. The California coast was her native place, imprinted on her since before she could walk, and she felt that imprint even hundreds of miles north of her childhood beaches. No matter what she discovered about Melanie, she could cope.
Joanna Biggar is a teacher, writer and traveler whose special places of the heart include the California coast and the South of France. She has degrees in Chinese and French and, as a professional writer for twenty-five years, has written poetry, fiction, personal essays, features, news and travel articles for hundreds of publications including The Washington Post Magazine, Psychology Today, The International Herald Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal.Her book Travels and Other Poems was published in 1996, and her most recent travel essays have appeared in the Venturing series, whose anthologies include books on France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Costa Rica, and Bali. A novel, That Paris Year, was published by Alan Squire Publishing in 2010. She has taught journalism, creative writing, personal essay and travel writing since 1984 in many venues. She has also taught reading and writing at St. Martin de Porres Middle School and Emiliano Zapata Street Academy in Oakland, California, where she lives. Joanna is a member of the Society of Women Geographers, a group of women explorers founded in 1925.