by Barbara Fischkin
Non Fiction / Scribner 1997
While filing from these exotic locations, the pair also starts a family, deals with in-laws, and struggles with domestic help, all the while continuing their Hepburn-Tracy style repartee and love/hate hijinks. Fans of Fischkin's first volume will be glad to hear that Leisure Suit, The Real Mulvaney, The Men Who Didn't Write Naked Came The Stranger (a smutty 1969 novel collaboratively written by Newsday staffers) and Congregation B'nai Israel's semi-legal Las Vegas Nite are back in force… Barbara Fischkin, the writer, can be very funny.
DISPATCH FROM THE WAR AT HOME
My husband grins, proud of himself.
Silently, we sit in our tangerineHonda Element in the parking lot of an ice arena on Long Island, a place I once swore I would never live or work. But I also swore I would never marry Jim Mulvaney.He says it was fate; that we were meant to be together. Two newspaper reporters, finding scoops – or stealing them from one another -- living and working in foreign countries. Eventually, we'd come home - to his home, that is; mine was in Brooklyn– and raise children.
That they are ours, is one of the few things in our marriage that is indisputable. Two boys, now teenagers. Mulvaneyesque beings, albeit with smoother edges. Those, I like to think, come from me.
Jack, he’s the hockey player. Defense.
Dan, our older boy, is more complicated. Lawyers, guns and money,we cry out in jest. As if that's what it takes to raise and -- even more so - to educate him.
Let's just say that school administrators have been known to bolt the door when they see us coming. Proving, I suppose, that sometimes this marriage does work as a partnership.
At the moment, though, I am not feeling particularly chummy.
“Great game,” he says.
“Don’t you dare speak to me,” I reply.
Through the square, wide windows of our Element, a rank Labor Day weekend rain pours down. Inside the car, water turns into steam. My husband – who will always be "Mulvaney," to me, never "Jim" – wrings out his rain-drenched, coffee-stained Rangers tee shirt and looks at me with those blue eyes of his. They're lighter now in middle age and they water more than they once did. But they still sear too, like no other eyes in the world.
I will not let those eyes get to me. Not tonight.
Less than an hour ago, just as Jack began to play his second game of the season – after losing the first in stunning third period setback – my husband turned into one of those horrific sports parents you hear about on the evening news.
In short: He was banished from the rink.
As in: Escorted to the door. Kicked out. Ejected.
The charge? “Parental Misconduct.”
Meaning, it could have been so much worse.
Questions & Answers with Barbara Fischkin,
author of CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES: A Novel
1. Like your previous novel, Exclusive, CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES is a novel that sounds as if it is based on your life. Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction?
I believe that if you intentionally make up anything – anything at all, a transition, a detail, even a word in a direct quote and do not signal this in some obvious way to your reader – then what you are writing is fiction. If it’s a book, you better call it a novel. To do otherwise, is to break the contract that writers have with their readers to honestly present their work. Change one detail and the reader doesn’t know how many others you have changed.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun making up things. I had a great time writing both these novels. But at my insistence the word “novel” is on the cover of both CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES and EXCLUSIVE.
2. But is the line between fact and fiction as clear cut as you say?
Nonfiction, journalism, history, even memoirs are created when writers take the very best rendition of facts they can gather from observation, interviews, memory and research and use all that information to tell a story. Sometimes, the best rendition is wrong. But it shouldn’t be wrong intentionally. This doesn’t mean that a writer of nonfiction can’t opine. The writer just cannot – or should not - make up something and include it in an opinion. If you are writing a story about a very obviously white dog, you can say, “I don’t like white dogs.” What you can’t say is: “This white dog I do not like is really a black dog.”
Unless, of course you can prove it.
3. So what made you decide to write EXCLUSIVE and CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES as novels?
I wanted to write books about journalists and family life, about the intersections of those two realms and about the natural urge I think we all have to fabricate – and to start believing our own tall tales. Because these are books about that fine but easily crossed line between fact and fiction, I thought it would be funny, and hopefully symbolic, to start with real places, real events and real names. And then make up stories about those people, places and events. Many novelists, I think, fixate quite understandably on names for their characters. Certainly I did. The main characters had to be Barbara Fischkin and Jim Mulvaney – and later in Confidential Sources, also Dan and Jack Mulvaney.
4. So how much of CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES – or EXCLUSIVE – is true. How much is fact and how much is fiction?
I couldn’t put a percentage on it. The best way to explain would be anecdotally.
In EXCLUSIVE there is a wild scene involving reporter Barbara Fischkin’s mother, Ida and British soldiers occupying Northern Ireland . There is a germ of truth to that story. My real-life mother, also named Ida, once visited me while I was on assignment in Belfast and she did, indeed, scold a naïve, young soldier for “discriminating against people because of their religion,” as if the entire war was all his fault. But that’s all it was: A conversation, an admonishment. In EXCLUSIVE – well you’ll have to read it – I have imagined a far more extreme, action-packed scene.
In CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES there are scenes in Ilocos Norte in the Philippines . In real life I was there with my husband and children. On the beach we met a few men who offered to take us on a scenic trip up the mountains. But the next day they didn’t show and we were told by locals that the trip would have been too dangerous for Americans. Nothing explicit was stated but it was implied that the threat was from terrorist activity, although we were never able to prove it. End of real story. In Confidential Sources I make much more of this incident, although not without extensive research – and even then the scenes involved had to be written with qualifications and expressions of doubt to make them plausible. Good fiction may not be true but it does have to be plausible within its own imagined territory.
There are also those rare times in fiction when the truth is just too good to change. Or to change much. CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES opens right after the character Jim Mulvaney is thrown out of his kid’s hockey game for being an unruly parent spectator. This, I swear, really happened. Any number of hockey mothers I know will back me up.
5. How have your skills and experiences as a former reporter been a help in writing your novels? Has it been hard to switch gears from news reporting to fiction?
I had to develop from a writer who interviewed and observed and then wrote a story into one who did all those things and then imagined – and then wrote. It is liberating to know you do not have to rely on the facts and also scary as hell. There are days when you are faced with a blank screen, no notes and no ideas. Being a reporter, though, did wonders for my eye for detail and my ear for dialogue. It taught me invaluable lessons about human nature. As I started to write fiction I needed the most help with plot. In journalism plot is always there. In fiction you must concoct it and I think that is very hard. People say plot has been the same since storytelling began -- and certainly since Shakespeare -- but that is small comfort when the plot you have to make has to fit your characters and the story you need to tell.
6. In CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES, Barbara has an autistic son. Please explain why you included this in the story.
In real life, our son Daniel, 19, suffered a severe regression at age three and half, lost his ability to speak and, in many ways, became a different, very disabled individual. It was diagnosed as late onset autism, more horrifically known as Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.
Daniel’s fictional alter ego in CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES is very much like him. I used that character - and his brother’s fictional alter ego too – because I was writing a novel about the turmoil of marriage and family. A disabled child tests these institutions in many tangible and intangible ways. I also thought that as a child who loses his ability to speak but still survives, the Danny character would make a wonderful contrast to the two very verbal protagonists and reflect their attributes. The real-life Daniel and I have our own way of communicating and I am certain that he approved of, even liked, the character I created. He gives us all the impression that he would like as many people as possible to know about autism and to try to understand it.
7. What do your other family and friends think of being included in your novels?
We are an immediate family of extroverts, egomaniacs, showmen and one show woman. My father-in-law, the real life Jim Mulvaney Sr. is the same if not worse. If even your autistic child is a social animal – and Daniel loves to see people, greet them etc. – then you know you are in trouble. Or, - in my case -- safe to plunge ahead and write. So as far as my relatives are concerned, they are delighted to be in the book. Our younger son Jack read every word I wrote about him prior to the submission of the manuscript. He has, in addition, told his father that CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES is not only a much better book but a more commercial one too, simply because it includes a character named Jack Mulvaney.
In real life, my parents and my mother-in-law have passed away. I miss them terribly and to be able to resurrect them as fictional alter egos was a great comfort to me.
My brother is a consummate storyteller but he is also a rather conservative corporate lawyer who claims he is glad I left him out of the first book and barely mentioned him in the second. Secretly, I think he wants a larger role. My husband’s brother is a great chef who probably should have had a larger role. (Or roll?)
The character “Claire,” is based very, very loosely on one of my best friends in the world who has threatened to murder me if I ever use her real name. I think, though, that she is kidding. And everyone knows who she is, anyway.
As for the public figures mentioned, I’ve heard no complaints based on EXCLUSIVE and the congressmen depicted in both books -- Peter King and Gary Ackerman-- have been lavish with praise. I only wish that Congressman Ackerman could, when he is not too busy as an important voice of the worthy opposition, find some time to get me on Imus.
For the record, no editor I know has admitted to being Leisure Suit. Which is as it should be. Leisure Suit is a composite of the best and worst traits of all of the fine people who edited me when I was a reporter.
8. What’s next?
I always have more book ideas than time to write. I would like to write a nonfiction book about my son Daniel. I would also like to write a prequel of sorts to EXCLUSIVE: The story of the parents of Barbara Fischkin and Jim Mulvaney. I also have ideas for a novel that connects 20th century European history and autism. Really. And someday, I swear, I will write it.