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.'


JO said…
I write about real people- and always change names and identifying details unless they have given me permission to write about them. I may be being picky, but I think it's and ethical thing - just as I'd like to know if people are writing about me, so I should give the same respect to everyone else, even if I disagree with them or they behave badly.
Bill Kirton said…
It's tricky, isn't it? My inclination would be to change the names from the start. On the other hand, if one of the people concerned were then to read the book and recognise him/herself in a case study or anecdote or whatever, s/he might feel exploited.

Congrats, though, on the 108%.
Kathleen Jones said…
It's brilliant that you've got your funding, Alice. Congratulations! I've got a similar problem in writing biography because I usually do have to use people's real names. But there's always the odd person who insists on being anonymous. I've learnt that you can't please everyone with what you write - their view of the event/situation will always be different. I'm with Anne Lamott on this, to some extent, but I hate upsetting people!
Really looking forward to the book coming out.
Very good news that you've hit your funding target! The problem with 'real people' is one I've seldom encountered because I tend to write about the past. I did once have somebody contact me, hopping mad because I described her (long dead) relative as an absentee landlord. I said I was sorry she was upset, but nothing else, mostly because I had spoken to somebody who remembered him well and confirmed that the description was pretty much spot on - but I didn't really set out to offend anyone. It hadn't even occurred to me, although of course it should have! I think if I were dealing with a contemporary memoir, I might change names though. You certainly can't start to give people rights of veto over the text. I'm currently working on a novel about a real historical figure which also involves another much worshipped historical figure and I already know that some people are going to be upset. But I think I can live with that. Good luck with it all and hope it goes well.
Lydia Bennet said…
congratulations on the funding Alice! good luck with the book. if you are writing biography you should stick to facts and names, but if you are writing memoir when the actual people aren't historically important in a factual sense but just part of a story in effect you can always change names. (like if you were writing about how you got bullied at school etc) you can't be sued if you tell the truth but then most of us would prefer not to cause distress to someone who can't answer back, when it's not in the public interest that their names come out in connection with something unpleasant. I wouldn't allow people to police the book. I wrote real older people's stories in one of my books published by a university and I asked each one if they wanted a false name or real and I stuck to that.

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