Daniel Wallace Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
October 20, 2017 12:09:06 PM
The 29th annual Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium kicked off Thursday night at Mississippi University for Women with a speech and reading from keynote speaker and bestselling Southern writer Daniel Wallace, who talked about truths, lies and embellishments in stories.
"We learn more about people through the lies they tell than we do from the truths they share," he told an audience at Poindexter Hall after sharing a fabricated story his mother used to tell about being married at age 12. "This is why I became a fiction writer in the first place, I think. It's how I was raised."
Wallace is one of 12 Southern poets, novelists and other writers to attend the symposium this year. Every October, MUW puts on the symposium to celebrate literature, using a theme taken from a line from one of MUW alumna Eudora Welty's short stories. This year's theme, "So the incident became a story," explores the ways stories can grow and become embellished in different retellings.
It's an idea Wallace, who was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and now lives in North Carolina, is familiar with -- he grew up hearing the story of his mother's elopement at age 12 to an 18-year-old she spent time with at the public pool one summer.
Wallace's mother used to tell the story to everyone, he said -- she told it to the woman Wallace would eventually marry on the day they met. But it wasn't until after her death in 2011 -- about the time Wallace began working on his sixth novel, "Extraordinary Adventures" which he's promoting at the symposium and which features a character based heavily on his mother -- that he questioned the story.
He called her old friend, who had heard a different but equally outlandish version of the story, namely that Wallace's grandfather had built the couple a house in the backyard upon discovering the marriage rather than having the marriage annulled as Wallace had always heard. Wallace even called his mother's first husband's second wife, now a widow, who had never heard the story before.
Eventually, he said, he hired a private detective who managed to find documentation proving that his mother did get married -- but at age 15 instead of 12. The marriage lasted a whole year before her parents discovered it and had it annulled. According to his grandfather, the bride and groom "acted toward each other during the whole time like kid sweethearts usually do."
Wallace said the discrepancies between the two stories are what he wondered about most.
"Why did she care? Why did she lie about it the way she did?" Wallace asked. "That's the most intriguing part of it all to me. Because what really happened is important only to the degree it differs from the story she told."
A good writer, he added, will usually draw from his or her own experiences to tell a fictional story.
"I think that's what fiction is," he said. "I think that we take our lives and that we reimagine them in the pages of a book. I think that the biggest mistake young writers make is they'll write about anything other than themselves, anything other than what happened, anything other than experiences they've had. ... Everything that we write of value is drawn from our experience, and the hard thing to do I think is to burrow into that and bring out of it something that's new and original."
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