Fanny is an English major working in a pub in order to pay her staggering college debt. One night a famous author comes into the bar and a star struck Fanny begins a relationship with him. He’s an alcoholic desperately in need of a story for his next novel. Fanny gives him hers. Her sprawling family history marked by infidelities, danger, step sibling craziness, revenge, passion and death becomes the core of a best seller and a subsequent movie. But how will Fanny’s family react when they discover she has literally given away their family’s story? What will they think?
I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth and it left me wondering who actually owns family stories. Many writers use their own family history to create the characters and events in their novels or to pen memoirs . Do they have the right to use stories from their family?
It’s a question being asked more frequently now that so many people share their family stories online. I share family stories. Some people in my family have asked me not to write about them or have let me know in various ways they don’t appreciate it when I write about them. Some people in my family love it when I write about them. Others have questioned my version of events.
Somehow I feel it is okay to write stories about family members who are no longer living. But what if other people in the family don’t agree with what I’ve said about the person who has died. What if they would rather I had remained silent? What if they feel I don’t have the right to tell a story about someone from our family’s shared past?
Commonwealth is an excellent novel and the story it spins intrigues and terrifies and makes you reflect on your own family narrative. Who has the rights to that narrative and who gets to decide how it should or shouldn’t be shared publicly?
A link to family stories I’ve shared in this blog.