Zoe Folbigg explains why in her new novel she distances herself from her own life.
A woman came up to me in the gym recently, her eyes filled with tears.
“Did that really happen to Velma?” she asked.
“Sorry?” I said, taking my headphones out of my ears. There’s a time and place for Shakira, but this didn’t feel like it. Faced with a fiftysomething woman who looked like she was troubled, I turned off my music and pressed pause on the running machine. “What was that?” I repeated.
“Velma. Was that bit true?”
Ahhh, she was referring to The Note. My debut novel, based on the true story of how I met my husband on our daily commute on the 8.21 a.m. train to King’s Cross. I had loved “Train Man” from afar, pined for him for over a year, wished I had the courage to talk to him but didn’t, plucked up the courage to give him a note, and, well, if you haven’t read The Note then I don’t want to give too many spoilers… But safe to say it was a story based on my life and the rollercoaster of falling in love at first sight with someone who hasn’t even noticed you.
Velma, the protagonist Maya’s sage septuagenarian friend, was based on several amazing women I’ve been lucky to know in my life. And although many of the characters were based on real people, Velma didn’t exist in reality. I didn’t know what to say to the woman looking up at me on the treadmill as I caught my breath and wiped my brow. Would telling her that Velma was an imaginary friend disappoint her (we all need a Velma in our life after all)? Or would she be pleased that Velma’s life hadn’t turned out the way it did in the book?
“Oh, erm, Velma was made up,” I said, apologetically. The woman looked both disappointed and relieved.
Which is a repeating problem I’ve had while writing, editing, promoting and talking about The Note: people ask me what’s true and what isn’t, and the lines of fact and fiction are so blurred I sometimes don’t know how to answer.
Apparently most debut novels are based on the author’s own life. Of course I was going to base James on my own “Train Man”. I wanted to write authentically about falling in love at first sight, so I thought it would be more convincing if I just described what I saw; how I felt. But in other places, I felt less comfortable writing about real people and events: would my siblings and friends be offended if I said something negative about them? I needed the characters to be flawed in places. Would people think I was big headed if I described Maya as beautiful? Of course the fictitious version of me would be the natural beauty I’m not! Would people think the red herrings I threw in to make the story more exciting were actually true? Or that my best friend had quite the fruity love life Maya’s best friend Nena does in the book?!
Having wrestled with fact blurred with fiction, I decided to dream big with my new novel, The Distance: to distance myself from my own life. To make it the sweeping, grand love story I wanted to tell. First up was setting it away from the Home Counties of The Note. So I studied the big world map on my sons’ playroom wall and settled on Mexico and Norway for my star-crossed lovers to be based. Two countries I had travelled to and loved, and the perfect places for Hector and Cecilie to fall in love across an ocean, a sea and a fjord.
I ensured their personalities, jobs and passions were completely different to my and my husband’s. Their family situations something I’ve never known. Their characteristics – Hector is loud and playful, the life and the soul of the party, the person people gravitate towards; Cecilie is quiet and thoughtful and static in her life – are not much like my and my husband’s.
But as I finished The Distance, a work of fiction I’m proud of, I realised reality exists in everything I write. The way Hector rubs at his left temple is a trait of one friend; the wriggle of Cecilie’s nose is a trait of another; they eat food I love; one character wears a lipstick shade that sits in my make-up bag; the wall art in the family home hangs in houses I visit. Which made me realise, all works of fiction must be anchored in some kind of truth; the author doesn’t pluck things out of thin air. I’ve come to realise I don’t.
I hope you enjoy it!
From the author of the bestselling novel, The Note, comes this beautiful, romantic tale of finding love in the most unexpected places.
Under the midnight sun of Arctic Norway, Cecilie Wiig goes online and stumbles across Hector Herrera in a band fan forum. They start chatting and soon realise they might be more than kindred spirits. But there are two big problems: Hector lives 8,909km away in Mexico. And he’s about to get married.
Can Cecilie, who’s anchored to two jobs she loves in the library and a cafe full of colourful characters in the town in which she grew up, overcome the hurdles of having fallen for someone she’s never met? Will Hector escape his turbulent past and the temptations of his hectic hedonistic life and make a leap of faith to change the path he’s on?
Zoe Folbigg’s latest novel is a story of two people, living two very different lives, and whether they can cross a gulf, ocean, sea and fjord to give their love a chance.
Zoë Folbigg is a magazine journalist and digital editor who started at Cosmopolitan in 2001 and since then has freelanced for many top magazine titles. In 2008 she had a weekly column in Fabulous magazine documenting her year-long round-the-world trip with ‘Train Man’ – a man she had met on her daily commute. She has since married Train Man and lives in Hertfordshire with him and their two young sons. She is the bestselling author of The Note.