It’s All About Me: Fictional Autobiographies


Cathy’s Hidden Gems features favorites & lesser known selections from the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library.


The fictional memoir Robinson Cruso by Daniel Defoe was controversial back 1719. Using the first person point of view, “Defoe crafted a story that isn’t nonfiction, yet feels as if it could be,” said Danny Heitman in the Wall Street Journal . “Early critics—and some more recent ones—have accused Defoe of going too far in creating the novel’s solid sense of actuality. After its release, many readers embraced ‘Robinson Crusoe’ as a travelogue recorded by a real, flesh-and-blood Crusoe.”


In The Girls by Lori Lansens (2006),  the characters are inspired by factual research, particularly by American craniopagus twins Lori and Reba Schappell, as well as Iranian twins Laleh and Ladan Jijani.

Rose is the initial storyteller:

This is the story of my life…but since my sister claims that it can’t technically be considered an autobiography and is opposed to my telling what she considers our story, I have agreed that she should write some chapters from her point of view.

As the book alternates between Rose and Ruby, totally fictional characters,  we agreed at Book Discussion that we sometimes forgot it wasn’t a true story.

In Ruby’s turn:

Rose said just write like I’m writing to a friend… (she) has high hopes of having this thing published…Who wants to read about a couple of sisters who work at the library in a boring small town, even if we are joined at the head?…Rose said to write about some of the things we’ve done and places we’ve been…I find this writing thing exhausting.

Aunt Lovey, who raises the girls with Uncle Stash, is determined that Rose and Ruby will live as normal a life as possible. She set up situations where the girls had to cooperate to get what they wanted.

A casual observer might have thought she was being cruel, but Aunt Lovey wanted more for us than just survival.

The adoptive parents encourage the twins in  their individual interests – Ruby is more girlie and likes TV, while Rose is more sporty and bookish. The book unfolds in anecdotes both ordinary and unusual.

Aunt Lovey told write my story fearlessly, a little how it is, a little how I wish it could be, not just as a conjoined twin but as a human being and a woman…write as if you’ll never be read…you’ll be sure to tell the truth.

Check out the “reality” of life as a conjoined twin with Abby and Brittany who had their own TV show from 2010-2012.


It Will End With Us by  Sam Savage (2014) is a hidden gem of a novella.

I wasn’t going to begin again, having stopped, apparently, and started up again, foolishly, too many times already, attempting to write about my family…

Jenny Hendrix of the New York Times writes an excellent review, “Eve is of a piece with Savage’s previous narrators, all of them in the process of some form of disintegration, who cling to the written word as though it were the only thing keeping them afloat.”

We can’t tell whether Eve thinks she will “never be read,” but clearly she is struggling to write her story.

I want to breathe life back into the memories that had drowned there, in the darkness of the mind, as I said, or soul…

Small bites of Eve’s lives create the backdrop for the challenges of her family, especially her mother at once beloved and aloof.

Images like pictures, frozen like snapshots mostly, but memories of sounds as well.  The ability to hear them again in the silence of thought somehow….  The sound of my father’s whistle when he came through the door after work…ice in highball glasses… I don’t remember when they stopped having drinks in the evening together or when my father began to come through the door without whistling.

In my memories of Mama reading it is always raining outside…Sometimes, reading, she was overcome by beauty and cried.

Her mother’s creative frustrations affect the entire family in rural South Carolina and Eve, now older than the mother she reflects on, struggles to process her life separately from her mother’s life.

I was fifteen when I finally understood that my mother’s poems were not literature…that regardless of what had happened and might still happen to her externally, her life within had come to nothing…

She dwelled in the wreckage of her poems… fantasized about a life that fate, my father, and the South had denied her… while the only real life she possessed slipped past her almost unobserved.

It is both Eve’s story – reflections on a life begun in 1940 – and a memorial to her mother, born in the early 20th century. The writing is spare and lovely. Hendrix says, “Reading the novel can feel like admiring dewdrops on a spider’s web, each paragraph and sentence glittering exquisitely, strung together by nothing but the slim gray thread of Eve’s voice.”


Sometimes we get through an entire book only to find at the end we have been reading someone’s fictional graduate thesis. As noted in an earlier blog post, we experience a new view of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens in Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (2006). Matilda survives the soldiers to leave her island of Bougainville and face her teenage memories by writing them. She later studies the sites where her hero Charles Dickens set his novels and comes to this understanding.

My Mr. Dickens used to go about barefoot and in a buttonless shirt…I never once saw him with a machete- his survival weapon was story…my Mr. Dickens had taught everyone of us kids that our voice was special…whatever else happened to us in our lives our voice could never be taken away from us.

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In The Brooklyn Follies, author Paul Auster lets us know upfront about his goal.

Humble as the project was, I decided to give it a grandiose, somewhat pompous title – in order to delude myself into thinking that I was engaged in important work.  I called it the Book of Human Folly, and in it I was planning to set down…every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed during my long and checked career as a man.

Nathan Glass, an almost sixty-year-old cancer survivor, has “maybe twenty years; maybe just a few more months. Whatever the… prognosis, the crucial thing was to take nothing for granted.” In Auster’s earthy style, we learn about family relationships that are complicated at best, as well as partners in both love and business. It’s easy to forget this  is “a project”  until he comes up with the idea to form a business to do the same for others.

Who bothers to publish biographies of the ordinary, the unsung, the workaday people we pass on the street…?

My idea was this: to form a company that would publish books about the forgotten ones, to rescue the stories and facts… something that would outlive them, that would outlive us all. One should never underestimate the power of books.

We are our stories – the ordinary and the elegant, the beloved and the beleaguered, the heroic and the historical.   Autobiographies can be inspiring and entertaining whether fictional or factual.

Hidden gems is a blog series by Cathy Okhuysen of the Public Services staff at PPL, lover of historical and general fiction and contemplative music singer. If you have suggestions for something that should be included in a future blog post, email her at

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