Monday, April 6, 2009

Is All Writing REALLY Autobiographical?

© Bonnie Kozek 2009 all rights reserved

When I meet someone who has read my hardboiled noir crime thriller, THRESHOLD, I usually get a funny look. Not funny-ha-ha. It’s more like funny in a knowing-wink-and-nod-concurrent-with-an-uncomfortable-nervous-giggle kind of way. When this occurs, I’m tempted to explain what I think is obvious: It’s fiction. But when temptation becomes manifest and I dost protest too much – well, you can guess the outcome. My protestation only serves to substantiate what the reader has already concluded. The sacrilegious, unhinged, haunted, and severely damaged protagonist – for whom no depth is too low to sink, and for whom no line is too sacred to cross – the enema-loving, most unlikely heroine of my book – she and I are one and the same.

Of course, it’s chimera. THRESHOLD is not autobiographical – nor is the second book in the Honey McGuinness series – JUST BEFORE THE DAWN. But knowing that the reader may be inclined to interpret my work in this manner, does, on occasion, give me pause. And when I’m given to pause, I begin to wonder. Does this style of writing shift some of the focus off the story and onto me? Or, put another way, are the cosmic concepts that spawn these books getting lost in the unconventional – the heretical – style of the noir genre?

Take THRESHOLD. The book was born of my desire to explore and answer a single question: How does the life of someone who believes – unwaveringly – in God alter the life of someone who, with equal determination, does not believe in God, and vice versa, if and when their lives become inextricably entangled? Now, it’s perfectly reasonable that a concept of such gravitas would be worked, exercised, and manipulated in a most particular way. Call it High Literature – literature written seriously, by serious writers, meant to be taken seriously. This type of writing would be inclined towards long sentences, composed of big multi-syllabic words – particularly those of the adjectival sort – wrapped in a reflective and problematic story rooted in the compound complexities of the human condition. However, as I contemplated this, I began to brood. Did I really have to write about this formidable notion in such an orthodox manner? Would it be unseemly to do otherwise? Did I even have a choice?

To answer these questions I battled two conflicting voices in my head, both passionate and hungry for dominance. One voice – allied with literary giants the likes of Tolstoy, Proust, Dostoevsky – argued eloquently and persuasively that indeed I did not have a choice. To properly plumb the depths and intricacies of such a lofty subject, I had to call upon my literary reserve of recognized seriousness and convention. The opposing voice – an heir to literary outlaws the likes of Artaud, Burroughs, Miller – argued raucously, and no less convincingly – employing a profusion of expletives for emphasis – that I could write about any concept I pleased in any (expletive deleted) style I pleased. Authentic truth, the voice argued, is often unearthed in the most unexpected places, and to reveal these truths in this manner requires an author to be willing to get her hands dirty.

And so, I began to weigh the opposing opinions. I was desperate to start writing, but no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t make up my mind about which course to take. Both positions were compelling and appealing. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before two opposing streams started to run in my mind – each with its own characters, plotlines, scenes and dialogue. Then, one night as I lay in bed stewing over the schizophrenic pandemonium inside my brain, waiting futilely for the now elusive good night’s sleep, the answer came to me.

A few years back I saw Sorcerer, a 1977 film directed by William Friedkin – a remake of the 1953 French film Le Salaire de la Peur (Wages of Fear). Briefly, the film is about four desperate criminals on the run from the law who are forced by misfortune to work in a remote oil drilling operation in a hellhole on the edge of a South American jungle. To get enough money to escape their circumstances, they transport a volatile cargo of nitro over miles of treacherous terrain in broken-down trucks. (One of the trucks – driven by the film’s star Roy Scheider – is called Sorcerer. Hence, the movie’s title.) What I remember about the film is this: From the first frame till the last I found the characters irredeemably unsympathetic. Friedkin hadn’t used any of the conventional manipulations of the medium to make me, the moviegoer, care one way or another about what happened to the characters. This was interesting. If I’m not invested in the characters, why watch the film? By the end of the film I had my answer. Unburdened by the traditional pulling of heartstrings, I was able to focus on the core concept of the story: Fate is mysterious: it strikes anyone, anytime, anyplace. Ergo, do we really have control over our own fates, either in birth or in death? Indeed, the film had wrestled with this far-reaching philosophical question without relying on the traditional treatment. And I had grasped this big idea in a way which may have eluded me if I had been emotionally bogged down in the usual manner. This realization was a breakthrough. Thus, I made my decision: I would get my hands dirty.

By the time the sun rose in the morning, I was already hard at work writing THRESHOLD. It’s monosyllabic and short of adjectives. Its protagonist hasn’t weathered the storm of life; she’s been chewed up and spit out by it. There is sex and drugs and murder. Yet obscured in this mixture of classic noir fiction and modern American pulp are characters and a narrative spawned from my desire to engage in and contend with the profound and fundamental idea of divinity in relationship to the individual human being.

Ultimately, if these big ideas succeed in penetrating through the tough-guy vernacular, I’m happy. And, if the cost of writing in this genre leads readers to believe I’ve personally been there and done that, well, that’s something I can live with. Writing, I believe, takes courage – the courage to buck convention and to uncensor the self. And even though honesty may not always be the best policy, I’ve got to admit something: There may be a grain of truth in the reader’s assumption. I mean, I wouldn’t say THRESHOLD is really auto-biographical. What I would say is that it’s …. well, let’s call it …. auto-biological.

* * *
About the author:
Bonnie Kozek’s novel, THRESHOLD, was published in 2008. It is the first book in her Honey McGuinness series. The second book in the series, JUST BEFORE THE DAWN, is scheduled for publication in 2009, followed by THE STORY OF WHY in 2010. Kozek has also written a book of poetry, MANIA, and several biographies for private publication through her company Legacy Publishing. She is a regular contributor of online articles about writing, as well as articles and opinions pieces in print media.

Kozek has had a varied and interesting career outside of the written word. She has collaborated on numerous projects with other artists, including Salvador Dali; worked as an editor on features and documentaries for both big and little screens in Hollywood and New York; and has written and directed shorts, including films for Saturday Night Live.

She worked at and attended California Institute of the Arts, and has taught in the graduate writing program at The New School. In addition she runs writing workshops at the not-for-profit multicultural human services agencies, FEGS and JCCA.

Her work has been recognized and honored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Kozek is married to Jacob Ween, an attorney for tenants’ rights. She has one son, Michael Kozek, and splits her time between New York City and Millbrook, a small town in upstate New York.

Learn more about her work at: or contact her at


s.w. vaughn said...

Fascinating article, Bonnie. It's true that genre work isn't expected to deliver any deep meaning, but as a reader I've found more inspiration and food for reflection in genre fiction than in any of the literary works I've read. Since genre is more accessible, I think it has the potential for a greater impact.

Go genre writers! :-)

Marta Stephens said...

Bonnie, as I read your post I thought of the number of times people have asked me where I get my ideas from and who I've fashioned my main character after.

It's hard to say what percentage is imagination--80%, 90%? So much of the author slips between the lines it's sometimes impossible to distinguish one from the other.

Thanks so much for joining us here on MB4!

April said...

I LOVE this article! What an excellently well written post. After reading this, I can't wait to get my hands on Threshold! I always felt that one of the "fun" things about writing is being able to play around with different personalities, etc. I have often thought, oh jeez, what if people think that I am really like that person/people that I am writing about. Is there a psychopath laying within there somewhere?! lol Though if such things were true, I would think horror writers such as Stephen King and Wes Craven would have a tough time getting people to hang around with them, lol!! Writing is suppose to be for the fun and entertainment of it, I think - for both the reader and the writer.

thewriterslife said...

Wow...great blog post! I'm sure people see the authors in the heroine's role all the time!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Bonnie, this is one of the most beautifully written and articulate posts we've shared at MB4. Thank you so much. I've put your series on my list to buy.

Last week on a much-delayed plane trip from NYC to Rochester I met a fascinating fellow who was friends with Truman Capote in Paris. Today I "meet" a woman who worked with Salvidor Dali. Life is full of wonder, isn't it?

Now tell us about your seedy personal life and those red high heels you wear all day... (LOL, just kidding of course!)

A. F. Stewart said...

A great article.
The question whether to write in a more literary style as opposed to genre fiction was especially interesting. Personally I think genre fiction can often tackle serious issues just as effectively as the more literary counterparts.

Morgan Mandel said...

In some way everything we write is autobiographical, but not usually in a huge way. Who else would notice what we do? Each has our own experiences which lead us up to making up stories.

Morgan Mandel

Kim Smith said...

Fabulous concept, Bonnie. I sort of hang on the theory that there is a whole lot of us in our work, consciously, or not.
Welcome and thanks for being here on MB4.

Bonnie Kozek said...

this is the first time i have posted anything on a blog, and i've never participated in a "virtual" conversation with other writers (or with any other bloggers.) i want to thank all of you for your thoughtful, sensitive and provocative "comments". actually, i'm overwhelmed.

Jodi Lee (Morrighan) said...

Excellent, excellent post. Thanks, Bonnie!

(PS mx4 folks: BTW - you've been tagged & awarded. Stop by my blog when ya get a chance. :) )

Anonymous said...

Wonderful Bunuel- bisous Dalou

Sheila Deeth said...

Wow. Great article!

Bonnie Kozek said...

hi all ... so i'm wondering ... do any of you ever censor yourselves when you're writing? i mean, is there any inner voice that whispers "hey, you can't write that!"?

s.w. vaughn said...

Hi Bonnie - on the issue of self-censoring: oh, yeah. There have been several times I've written something and told myself no way, that's too crazy / graphic / awful.

But sometimes that little voice is wrong. For example: my agent actually wanted me to add more violence to one of the scenes in my novel, that I had originally considered doing anyway but decided it would be too much. :-)

Like everything in writing, extreme material is a balancing act. Sometimes, you just need to get down and dirty. It all depends on what's best for your story.

Anonymous said...

May Bonnie will get around to writing about that nut-job she calls her husband.