Based on a true story?

I get confused by memoirs that are fictionalized or fiction that claims to be heavy on fact. So Amy Tan’s note to her reader at the beginning of Saving Fish from Drowning really confused me.

The idea for this book began with a bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder. I was walking on the Upper West Side in Manhattan when I was caught without an umbrella in a fierce summer downpour. I spotted a possible shelter: a handsome brownstone building with gleaming black double doors. A brass plaque read: “American Society for Psychical Research.” Lured by the possibilities within, I rang the bell, and spent the rest of the day perusing the Society’s archives.

There was another case in the archives that fascinated me even more. The writings were recorded by a medium named Karen Lundegaard, who lived in Berkeley, California. She had received in fifty-four sessions a rambling story that was part rant, part memoir, delivered by a spirit named Bibi Chen.

However these writings came to be, I decided the material was irresistible. In a city known for its characters, Bibi Chen was the genuine article, a true San Franciscan. Without giving away her story, I will mention only that she talked about eleven tourists missing in Burma, who were the subject of new headlines for weeks, a story readers may well recognize. While Karen Lundegaard may have constructed from what she had already read in the news, her writings contained details that were not reported, according to people I later interviewed.

Whether one believes in communication with the dead or not, readers are willing to suspend disbelief when immersed in fiction. We want to believe that the world we have entered through the portals of another’s imagination indeed exists, that the narrator is or has been among us. And so I have written this story as that, fiction inspired by Karen Lundegaard’s automatic writings.
See, the problem is, for me, that this note to me the reader came before the story began. I always read forewords, acknowledgments, notes to readers in the order they are presented. Silly me but I think that a book should be read in the order it is bound because that order was chosen for a reason. (Like certain albums back in the time when you bought a collection of songs in its entirety on purpose.)
So I have to wonder why Tan wanted me to doubt the fiction of this novel before I even reached page one. Because I have no idea if I believe in automatic writing and ghosts who feel inclined to pester sensitive people about their stories. Am I supposed to believe that Tan believes in that? If so, does it matter to the story?
I would have preferred this acknowledgment of inspiration be at the back of the book. Let me read the book (first person from Bibi’s POV, so far), enjoy it, and then tell me where the kernel of the idea began. I do enjoy finding out what random fact or event begets a fat novel.
Just not ahead of time.
And not if the topic is metaphysical and freaky-deaky, as fun as those topics can be.
Because, now, I need to research Bibi Chen a bit. And other stuff, too.
* * *
Crap – looks like one long con. Why, why, why? I know fiction is kind of already a con but when you lie about it being true I just get confused about who I can trust. Apparently, it’s not Amy Tan.
An interview with Tan on NPR. Can I blame the “manuscript in the attic” deceit on Lyme disease?

One thought on “Based on a true story?

  1. Hello there, I was doing some research on my late mother Dr. Karen Lundegaard, and I came across your article. Perhaps Amy Tan's book was confusing to some people as to who was real and who was not. This has come up in many articles and blogs.

    I just thought you should know that Karen Lundegaard was very much a real medium who did many readings with Amy. Originally she was going to name my mom's character Sanya Lundegaard, but my mother told her she could use her real name.

    I wonder what Bibi Chen's real name is?

    Best, Elizabeth Laul Healey

    and at one time believe it or not I went by Elizabeth Lundegaard : )


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