I've been talking a lot recently - on my virtual book tour, at the Huddersfield Festival and in the forthcoming Salt book on how to write short stories (edited by Vanessa Gebbie) - about the relationship between real life and fiction, but I haven't tackled this problem: what about when you take a real-life trigger and twist it into something quite different, but then real life takes such a turn that you lose grip on your fiction?
This is precisely what has happened to me over the past few days. For some time now I have been mulling an idea based on an incident in the past of a relative of mine. It's an incident which has always stayed with me, and which seems ripe with narrative possibilities - or at least thematic possibilitites, and for me once you've got the theme the narrative usually follows. In fact those possibilities hadn't become clear to me, and so the story hadn't so far happened, but then late last week it began to. I wrote the opening scene, although I was still very much feeling my way. Then lying awake in the night, I had it, the real 'inspiration': I saw what the incident truly 'meant' - ie what it meant to me, for a story, rather than what it had meant in real life. This is what you're always waiting for as a writer, think, the moment when the logic of narrative makes its own demands and releases you from real life into the more organic world of make up.
Well, I had a really good morning writing the next two pages. And then, guess what? That very same day a family crisis occurred involving the relative who had been the real-life trigger. And guess what? I am so taken up by her new crisis that I am finding it really hard to inhabit the story. It's not that I no longer believe in the story, I do, but my psychological alignment with it has been disturbed: my relative's real-life dilemma and her real-life personality are too close to me at the moment not to come between me and very different fictional reality I was creating.
The answer, I know, is to set the story aside and wait for that distance from my real-life relative to return. Or maybe start writing science fiction...