In the early autumn of 2002 my father burned up in his sedan. It was parked in the driveway of the house he shared with my mother, close enough to the house that the vinyl siding melted. The fire started just after midnight. My father survived, but his legs and arms were badly burned. When I saw him at the hospital some hours after the fire, he was incoherent.
We don't know how the fire started. We don't know what my father was doing in the car, drunk, at midnight. He said he didn't remember anything. The fire department investigators had theories, of course, but at the time these theories were insulting and too painful to consider.
It was discovered, two months later, that my father was full of cancer and that his odd behaviour had been inspired by tumours in his brain. In December, 2003, he died in a palliative-care ward.
There's no way to discuss an event like this at a dinner party. It's mysterious and terrible and crazy, and it sucks everything into it. All other topics of conversation - the smartest breed of dog, the state of the Mexican peso and the boringness of Australian red wine - dry up with the uneaten brie.
More important, I have felt no need to discuss the event. My brother corresponded with the chief of the fire department after my father died, seeking to protect the family's honour, or maybe just looking for the truth.
Up until this point, I have not attempted autobiographical fiction. I borrowed details from my own life and from the lives of family and friends for my first few novels, but only for colour and texture. As a reader and as a writer, I felt that if a story weren't completely made up, it was somehow less authentic, less like art.
This is backward for my wife, Gina, who favours autobiographical novels, historical fiction and movies that are "based on a true story." Here's a version of a not-mysterious, not-terrible and not-crazy dinner conversation, a common one in our apartment.
Todd: A crappy story based on a true story isn't necessarily true. Gina: But there really is a teacher in the ghetto who lifted his students' spirits through the power of skipping rope. Todd: The movie was terrible. Gina: You cried. Todd: For not even a minute. Gina: Come on. Todd: Good made-up stories are truer than bad true stories. Gina: Yeah, but no they aren't. And define "bad."
An informal survey of my reader friends, not my writer friends, suggests that Gina's opinion is both more popular and easier to support. The more I think about it, the more I see how wrong I have been to argue that human truth can be discovered more easily in imaginative fiction. Also, I sounded like a pretentious ass.
My new novel features a protagonist whose father burns up in his sedan. At first it felt wrong to include it in the novel, as though I were cheapening the final months of my father's life. I took it out, and then I put it back in.
It's not there for therapy. It's in the book because it was, and remains, mysterious and terrible and crazy. I'm just as haunted by the fire as my brother, though in a different way. I don't really want to know the truth. Not the fire chief's truth, anyway.
Novelists aren't supposed to worry about what their mothers and brothers think, but I do. I worry about it constantly. If readers know some bits of the book are true, perhaps they will think everything is true. This would not bode well for my mother's reputation.
What about binding a draft of Toby: A Man in which the father does not burn up in a fire? A family copy? I suggested it to my editor. Would this be a hard thing to do? Would it be expensive? She thought I was joking. I was so pleased to get a laugh and desperate to appear sane that I pretended I really had been joking.
The dedication on the original manuscript was, "I'm sorry, Mom." Then, one sweaty night, I e-mailed HarperCollins and asked if we could take it out.
But I am sorry, Mom.
Todd Babiak's fourth and latest novel is Toby: A Man. He lives with his family in Douarnenez, France.