Should I write my memoir as a novel?

Photo by Gretchen Lemay Photography

An interview with Teri Case, author of the life-inspired, award-winning novel Tiger Drive.

I am regularly contacted by potential memoirists who are wondering whether they should write their memoir as a novel. Sometimes they want to tell their story but not have it associated directly with them. Other times they want to write about people who prefer not to end up in a book. And some authors think it’s prudent to change certain details for legal reasons. They’re often right and I get them the best legal advice that I can. I have helped memoirists to change identifying details, but I haven’t helped a memoirist to write a novel because fiction is not my area of expertise. My thought has always been that if you’ve never written before then trying to write two genres at the same time is quite a challenge! Not impossible, but a challenge…

Then there are authors who want to be novelists but there is a true story inside them that is screaming for release! I think the lovely Teri falls into this category. I met her through a memoirist I am working with as she is a significant character in his story. I often speak to the friends and family of my authors – mining them for detail, fresh perspectives and stories my authors have forgotten. When I spoke to Teri, she told me that she’d written the life-inspired novel Tiger Drive. I read it and loved it and then I wanted to know what was true, what was fictionalized and what her process was. Teri kindly agreed to be interviewed by me and you can read our chat below. I hope you enjoy it and find it thought provoking. Please share this post and comment to let Teri and I know what you think. You can ask her, or me, any questions. And do please support Teri by buying Tiger Drive, leaving a review and signing up to her great newsletter via her website.

Enjoy! Warmest wishes, Marnie

Hi Teri, thanks for taking the time to chat to me. At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to write a book?

At a young age, I decided to be an artist. Actually, my dad told me I would be one. He had meant by drawing, but in my tiny heart, I knew I would be a writer. I was always writing stories in my head. On road trips, I’d stare out the window at the yellow and white highway lines. Long solid lines were Mr. and Mrs. Yellow, or Mr. or Mrs. White, and the dashes were their kids on their way to paint-bomb each other’s houses. The Whites and Yellows were always fighting. Once I started playing with Barbie Dolls, Ken and Barbie’s story was epic; it spanned three years and I consider it my first series. My first written project was in the third grade. I wrote about a Native American boy with a pear-shaped head who the kids bullied. It had a happy ending. Once hormones came into play, I started writing teen romances. Not surprisingly, the main character’s father was an alcoholic, but the story also had a happy ending. Hmm … I’m spotting a trend here.

A teen romance was my first industry submission. When I was sixteen years old, I handwrote it on college ruled paper, bound it with blue yarn and mailed it to Seventeen Magazine. I never heard back from them.

My writing space is not glamorous! It’s currently the kitchen table or a space at the library. But I think it’s a good message: sometimes we have to write anywhere we can.

Did you know immediately that you wanted to draw from personal experience?

When I sat down and wrote the first draft of Tiger Drive in 2011, I was more surprised than anyone about the personal subject. I was forty-one and thought I’d write an adult romance, but thanks to an online writing class, I wrote the first five hundred words of Tiger Drive instead. I was scared to death and felt like I’d opened pandora’s box, and yet, I couldn’t stop writing for four months until it was done.

What were the concerns that you had about that, if any?

My greatest concern about writing Tiger Drive from personal experience was for my family. My family has secrets I still don’t know about. I didn’t want to inadvertently tell someone’s truth or hurt anyone. Tiger Drive is fiction but has archetypes that exist in my family: an addict, an abused woman, an abusive man, a gang member … The thing about archetypal characters is that they are predictable; they behave in anticipated ways. While the plot of Tiger Drive is fiction (for example, my dad didn’t beat a man into a coma), I often stopped and wondered, Am I actually uncovering a truth about my family? Answer: Yes. Yes, I did uncover a few dark secrets by writing Tiger Drive.

What could be the positives for you as a person and as an author?

Tiger Drive has been a gift in countless ways. First, I couldn’t help but take an inventory of the people who helped me when I was the teenage character, Carrie’s age. The novel inspired me to pay this help forward by creating the Tiger Drive Scholarship which helps support students who are reaching, learning and growing beyond their familiar environment by attending college or trade school.

Secondly, the novel has been healing for my family. My mother, whom Janice is loosely inspired by, called me after she read it. She was emotional and said, “Reading Tiger Drive has made me realize I never took the time I needed to mourn your father. I was so busy surviving.” For the record, she recently read it for the fourth time.

And finally, the connections I’ve made with teachers, addicts, victims, and people who are struggling to feel like they matter has been priceless. I am humbled by their trust in me on a daily basis.

In the end, you wrote a novel – how did you make that decision, rather than writing a memoir?

There are two reasons I could never have written a memoir instead of writing a life-inspired novel. The primary reason is that members of my family have secrets to this day. I actually do not understand everything that has happened in my family and couldn’t have written a memoir. My father passed away when I was fifteen, and he took stories to the grave with him. After researching abuse and writing Tiger Drive, I believe my father was sexually assaulted as a young boy, but I’ll never know for sure. Secondly, the truths I do know about my family that impacted my world view and perspective do not belong to me. Things happened that would require me telling someone else’s truth and experience, and I respect and love them too much to share their stories before they do. A counselor once advised me that a dysfunctional home is like a swimming pool. If someone pees in the pool, everyone gets pissed on, but some worse than others. It seems I was often on the opposite side of the pool.

Book cover designed by Olya  Vynnychenko

Was this your first book and if so, what was your process?

Tiger Drive is my debut novel. I had six months off from work, and I took the time seriously because I had been working since I was fifteen years old. I set an alarm each morning as if I was going to work and then I sat at my desk with a timer. I’d set the timer for twenty-minutes and keep my butt in the chair until I wrote something. I reset the timer again and again. At this point, I didn’t have any training about how to write a novel. Thanks to the creative writing course, I had the first five hundred words and I also knew how I wanted the book to end. For four months, I showed up every morning and filled in the blanks. At the end of each day, I sent my new words to my younger brother, Karsen. He would let me know if I was pushing too many buttons or not. I then rewrote it fourteen times over the next six years.

Don’t panic! I can explain the six years and rewrites. Once I returned to work full-time, I wasn’t able to focus energy on moving Tiger Drive forward. And when I say “rewrote it fourteen times,” I mean I received feedback from at least fourteen people: editors, beta readers, agents … Whenever I received similar feedback, I addressed the issue by rewriting specific scenes. Once done, I started sending query letters to agents again—I was getting closer, but I still wasn’t convincing them they must sign Tiger Drive. Finally, I took a course via Author Accelerator called Story Genius (inspired by a book written by Lisa Cron) to help me start my second novel In the Doghouse (don’t get stuck writing only one book!). During Story Genius, I realized why agents had said they didn’t care about the characters’ journeys. Story Genius by Lisa Cron focuses on the character’s arc and the story’s internal logic and urgency. By better explaining my characters’ misbeliefs and what they wanted, I was finally able to fix Tiger Drive and share it with the world.

Here is a picture of the room I reserve for 3 hours at a time at my local library. I often write at the library. It’s quiet, free, and I’m surrounded by thousands of books!

How did you decide what to fictionalize and what to write about exactly as it happened?

I was inspired to write Tiger Drive after a creative writing teacher told us to look around our writing room and find something that inspired us. I was inspired by two photos. One was of my mom’s high school graduation and the other was of my father in the merchant marines. They were about eighteen years old and their eyes still sparkled with hope and optimism for their futures. I wondered, What happened to these two people that they became such train wrecks together? I made up a story.

The plot is fiction. My dad never beat anyone into a coma. My mom doesn’t sing and never dreamt of leaving her children behind. My drug dealing brother wasn’t part of a gang, but he made choices and acted like he belonged to one. I never understood these three people, so I created a plot and asked myself, What did they each believe about life that would motivate them to make their choices.? How would it feel to be an alcoholic? What does “rock bottom” feel like? How did it feel to be a mother of several children in an abused relationship? Why don’t abused women leave? Why would a young man join a gang?

To explore these characters I relied on my life as a teenager in a dysfunctional family. Carrie is me and her thoughts, fears, struggles, and dreams were mine. And I most definitely pulled from the death of my dad. My father was an alcoholic and committed suicide when I was fifteen. He didn’t leave a letter so I wanted to know what Tiger Drive’s Harry would write as his final goodbye. As I mention earlier, I never wanted to tell anyone’s truths with my novel, but my story and my father’s, since he is no longer alive, seemed fair to share.

Also, I took advantage of the opportunity and designed characters around those who really encouraged me and supported me in my teens. For example, I worked at the Department of Personnel for the State of Nevada in high school. In the novel, I say it’s the county department, but I wanted to thank those amazing people for being a positive influence in my life. I heard from four of them who read the book. Amazing, right?

Book cover designed by Olya  Vynnychenko

Emotionally, how was the writing process?

Writing Tiger Drive and my second novel, In the Doghouse: A Couple’s Breakup from Their Dog’s Point of View, has been a cathartic release. Not only is it immensely rewarding to have made the dream I always said I would accomplish “someday” a dream accomplished today, but I’ve had to question my own misbeliefs about life and people. I’ve found great forgiveness for myself and others while writing. Now, I can’t stop.

What was your family’s response to you writing this book? Did that influence you at all? 

Tiger Drive is the name of the street I grew up on. When my family first heard I was writing Tiger Drive, they assumed it would be a memoir. My mom was the most concerned. Like daughter, Carrie and mother, Janice in Tiger Drive, my mom and I did not get along when I was a teenager. I was closer to my father (also similar to the book). My mother hadn’t even read a word of the draft when she started telling people (everyone except me, of course) that, “Teri is going to make me look weak and her dad strong.” For anyone who has read Tiger Drive, including my mom, that wasn’t the case. My mom loves the book. She recently read it for the fourth time, and she tells everyone she knows to read it.

But a funny side story is that my second novel is titled In the Doghouse. The bar that my family frequented when I was a child, and it had the first phone number I learned to memorize, was called Doghouse Bar. When my family found out I was writing In the Doghouse, they were convinced that NOW I was writing a memoir and they were all done for. But no, their secrets are still safe.

How did you feel when you’d written the book and released it into the wild?

When I first released Tiger Drive, I was both elated to have finally done what I’ve always said I wanted to do and scared to death how it would be received. Would people assume I was telling a true story? I worried that people would think my dad had beaten a man into a coma, or that I had “outed” my older brother. I waited for someone to say the book was horrible, too vulgar, or poorly written. But none of that happened. Since its release, I’ve received dozens of emails and private messages from people who related to one or more of the characters. People who supported me when I needed support the most as a teen came out again and lifted me up. I’ve cried more tears than I can say. And as of today, Tiger Drive has won several awards. Not too shabby, right?

And, regarding your privacy, how protected or exposed did you feel and were your feelings a surprise to you?

Similar to my previous answer.

What have the readers who know you said about the book and how, if it has differed, has that response differed to readers who didn’t know you?

Readers from my hometown who knew me in high school have contacted me to say they never realized what my homelife was like. Given that I did everything possible in my teens to make sure no one knew, I’m not surprised. I’m a little proud about it actually. Going to school and pretending to be “normal” was a wonderful experience for me. I was surrounded by friends and their families who showed me a different way to live and what being responsible and accountable looked like. They were my models, and I’m grateful for them every day. I had a few friends who knew my true story at the time. They remain my dearest friends today. They made a difference. They matter.

I often hear from readers who didn’t know me that they never understood the world I wrote about before, but that now, they will pause and be less judgmental, more kind.

Are you at peace with the choice you made?

I dedicated Tiger Drive to my two younger brothers and sister: To Karsen, Adam, and Crystal. It has been my honor and privilege to be your older sister. Given the chance, I’d do it all over again. At my first book signing, Karsen hugged me and said, “I’m proud of you.” And Adam pulled me aside and said with earnest, “Thank you for doing this for us.” Crystal brags about me all the time at her salon when she hears a customer talking about my book. “She’s my sister.”

I get teary every time I share this, so yeah, I’m at peace.

Will you write more based on personal experience? 

There will always be a little bit of me in any book I write; the good and the bad. I believe that authors who add their jubilation, humor, pain, and their will to survive and matter into their books, write some of the best books. In my second novel, In the Doghouse: A Couple’s Breakup from Their Dog’s Point of View, the main character is a dog, but I pulled from my own breakups, self-doubt, and fears about being alone. And I had two dogs in my life, Marie and Kimo, who loved me unconditionally. Four if I count nephew dogs, Cheetah and Cooper. These canine superpowers informed Skip, the main character.


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6 thoughts on “Should I write my memoir as a novel?”

  1. Nicole Bowers

    I grew up in an era where you didn’t talk about what went on behind closed doors and the insanity that ruled my home life. That was normal to me and what I took into my adult life. I embrace the journey Teri took from her dysfunctional life for her own healing and that allowed me to look at mine through Tiger Drive. With reading this article, I realize I had and have no true idea what it takes to write a book and applaud the discipline, study, effort, and emotional balance involved! Thank you for sharing your inspiration, compassion, and imagination that gave us Tiger Drive and In the Dog House!

    1. Hi Nicole, oh that’s so lovely that you were able to embrace Teri’s journey and look at your experience through the lens of Tiger Drive. This is truly the gift that writers give us, especially those writing about their own lives or inspired by them. Yes, you’re absolutely right, it is an incredible amount of work that goes into any book worth reading. The discipline is something that non-writers don’t always consider – why should they? Like ballet that appears effortless on the stage, it should appear effortless on the page. But for anyone thinking of writing, or doing it, it’s important to know what it takes. Several drafts, refining and refining, are what give us truth, imagined or real, in my opinion. Redrafting is where the excavation takes place. Such committment and effort. I always think of this when people say that books are too expensive. Admittedly for some people they are (thank heavens for libraries where they exist and are well-stocked) but if you buy a book for about £10, that’s not even an hour of the author’s time you’ve paid for. Thanks so much for your thought provoking comment. Warmest wishes, Marnie

    2. Thank you, Nicole. I bet we could talk for hours in person.

      And your point about the no-talking era is a great one. At one point, agents who were considering Tiger Drive asked me if I could rewrite it for current-day rather than the eighties. My immediate reaction was “NO” because the eighties created a significant shift in mental health.

      Oprah hit television in the mid-eighties and encouraged people to discuss everything (and people were shocked). We didn’t have the world wide web and internet where we could go online and look for support groups or help. There weren’t life coaches yet or alternative counseling methods, at least not widely known. But by the late eighties and into the nineties, people started to ditch the “don’t air your dirty laundry” and they started talking due to more resources. They were no longer alone.

      Thanks for being you.

  2. Melissa Anderson

    I met Teri on a hiking trip and enjoyed her company. I was intrigued and purchased Tiger Drive when I got home. I took seriously the author’s disclaimer that “Tiger Drive is a work of fiction, etc.,” so when I finished reading the book, I felt perfectly comfortable commenting to her on what I thought of the “characters.” Now I think, “Whoops, what did I say? I hope I didn’t insult her family!” I wonder if the author of a book that draws heavily on personal experience finds it harder to hear potentially critical comments about the people in the book because of that personal emotional connection. In other words, does one react more defensively out of family protectiveness, when it is a memoir-inspired novel (if that’s the right term)?

    1. That’s such an interesting thought, Melissa. Knowing Teri a little, and this project, I feel that you were right to take her disclaimer seriously. I am quite sure that she would have been pleased that her characters were so well drawn that you felt able to comment on them as though they were real. Hopefully Teri will comment on this and the question you ask. Thanks so much for commenting. Warmest wishes, Marnie

    2. Melissa, my hiking friend!

      You were right to take my disclaimer seriously and I’m grateful you did. You were (are) my perfect reader. I WANT people to appreciate that personal experience can be applied but still come out as fiction and I want people to share their honest reaction.

      In the case of Tiger Drive, almost everyone has told me they didn’t like the characters and how they treated each other, but they understood them. Such words are the greatest compliment because I applied my personal experience and tried to walk in each characters’ shoes to find out why they mattered. While writing, I didn’t like them most of the time, but I sure am proud of their complexity.

      Thanks for being you.

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