Columnist John Sheirer: Fictional facts and factual fictions


Published: 8/9/2021 11:05:09 AM

When some people find out I write fiction as well as social commentaries, they tend to say something like, “I knew it! You just write lies!”

Equating “fiction” with “lies” is an echoing shout into an irony canyon. Yes, nonfiction focuses on “facts” while fiction can spring from the “imagination,” but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

French-Algerian author Albert Camus wrote, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. Camus’s 1947 novel “The Plague” explores the truth of all-too-fallible human responses to the outbreak of a deadly disease.

Camus’ fiction reminds us of our recent plague-illuminated truth: Health care workers risked themselves to save others. Service professionals kept our world moving despite infection exposure and inadequate pay. Parents restructured their lives to guide children through the crisis.

We saw unfortunate truths as well: The former president abused his power while people suffered and died because of his lies. So-called adults carried rifles to statehouses and plotted to kidnap governors just because they didn’t want to wear a mask. An entire political party downplayed a pandemic.

Some of the recent heroism and much of the cowardice would get a novel rejected for not being believable.

My most recent book is a collection of fictional stories called, “Stumbling Through Adulthood.” Many of these stories explore political issues to emulate Camus’s truth-through-fiction theme.

The first story centers on a chance meeting between two strangers. That’s not “political” in and of itself, but the stranger in need is a white woman while the stranger offering assistance is a black man who risks potential violence just to help someone he’s never met.

Giving readers the opportunity to empathize with someone whose public safety is filtered by his skin color adds a political element to the fundamental human connection between these two characters.

One story takes readers inside the thoughts of a man whose frustration with politics boils over while jogging in a sudden thunderstorm. Another story speculates about a social media expert kidnapped to serve a presidential candidate determined to win by cheating. Fiction, yes, but it’s easy to see the “truth” within that story.

Twin brothers in another story debate their contrasting political views and life experiences while shoveling the driveway after a snowstorm at their childhood home.

Other stories focus on characters who think of themselves as apolitical. But they come to realize that political forces affect them far more than they realized. Some are able to redeem themselves, but one faces a tragedy that might ruin his life.

Just for fun, one story follows the perception of aliens among us who have to decide if humans who let a madman become president deserve to continue existing on this planet. You’ll have to read the story to discover our fate.

The most enriching aspect of fiction about political issues is that a writer can explore the forces that created each character’s political views. In everyday life, we might hear someone say something offensive or ignorant and wonder, “My God, what happened to him?” Usually, we never know. But fiction allows for backstory. We’ll still abhor the objectionable views, but we might find empathy for the character trapped in the life that created those views.

Real life seldom provides flashbacks or omniscient narrators to contextualize a person’s motivation. For example, there’s a guy who trolls the columns in this paper with outrageous, insulting, immature, petty, ignorant, misinformed, grammar-challenged online comments. I can only guess at his backstory, but here’s a possible fragment:

Back in 10th grade, this guy might have gone to his guidance counselor and said, “I’m supposed to ask what to be when I grow up.”

Counselor: “Tell me about yourself.”

Guy: “Well, I’m rude, I hate doing research, and I think conspiracy theories are awesome.”

Counselor, tapping computer keyboard: “Okay. It says here you’re a 97% match for being a right-wing internet troll.”

Guy: “Cool!”

Counselor, studying the fine print: “And you’ll never actually grow up.”

Sure, this scene probably never happened, and it’s not in my book. But sometimes fiction emphasizes the sad truth that some nasty jerks have always been nasty jerks.

“Stumbling Through Adulthood” contains many nonpolitical stories that reveal truth as well. As important as politics is in our world, it’s often productive to step away and write or read about people living their ordinary lives in extraordinary ways.

A man in one story shows off by eating an entire jelly-filled donut in one bite. Siblings sharing a hike joke about what to do if they end up on life support. A woman with a bad flu fears she may have something much more serious. A writer has an encounter with secret agents from A dude at the gym may be the worst flirter ever. An elderly woman makes a connection with a telephone voice on the other side of the planet. A man finds a bear cub in a file cabinet at work.

Yes, you read that last one correctly. I invite you to read the book to see what truth he discovers within that fictional office!

John Sheirer is an author and teacher who lives in Florence. His new story collection, “Stumbling Through Adulthood,” is now available. He’ll have a public reading from the book at Forbes Library on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 6 p.m. (rain date: Thursday, Aug. 12, 6 p.m.). Find him at

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