Memoir - should you change the names or not? - Alice Jolly
My memoir, 'Dead Babies and Seaside Towns' is now 108% funded. It has taken me five months to raise the money and it hasn't been easy - but some aspects of the process have been fun and it has certainly pushed me to market myself in a way I never thought I could. Unbound will publish the book on 2 July. So we are into the final editing of the book and suddenly I am up against that tricky question. Do I change the names of real people who are in the book?
I've only just started to think about this question. In fact, I've only just started to realise that people will read the book and have reactions to it. This may sound strange but I think that, while writing the book, I had to entirely shut down the part of my brain that might have asked - how will this be read?
I think it is like that for all writers to some degree. But with a memoir the need to construct that mental barrier is particularly important. For a memoir to be good, in my view, it needs to be really honest. You can't be honest if you've got your mother (metaphorically) listening in.
But now I'm through that stage of the writing process and I am having to consider questions of other peoples' privacy. I can change names but often that doesn't help too much. Often we don't need a name to recognise someone. I asked Unbound their advice and did some thinking and finally decided that I would e-mail all the real people in the book and ask if they wanted their name changed.
The vast majority of people have come back with simple, clear responses. But some people's responses have been difficult, tortured, ambivalent. I had no idea that I was wading into such difficult territory. Some people want to see bits of the book to check what is said. I don't really want that. I never offered to change the book, only the names.
Overall, this isn't a big problem. I am sorting it out. But what have I learnt? Well, if I ever write another memoir, I will simply change all the names. And then I won't consult anybody about anything. Is that harsh? Yes, probably. But the truth is that writing a memoir isn't a democratic process, there is no obligation to consult. As long as you don't libel anyone, then you can write what you want.
I asked a friend about all this. She is a much nicer person than me. She said, 'You should be really careful. After all, it is only a book. Friends and family last, books don't.' I listened to what she said but I wasn't persuaded. I'm obsessive about writing - very. For me, a book is not 'only a book.' And books do last. They are out there forever, far more durable than human relationships.
Finally I don't predict any great problems. I haven't said anything unpleasant about anyone. But I do like Anne Lamott's uncompromising comment on this question. 'If people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.'