LitQuake – The Bridge Between Fiction and Nonfiction

The conversation last night, between two Pulitzer prize winners—Adam Johnson

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 4.29.07 PM

and TJ Stiles Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 4.28.49 PM

kept me scribbling notes while I tended bar. Yes, I volunteered to work the event.


Adam Johnson and TJ Stiles

Johnson recounted how his journalism professor would identify all of the false quotes he had created while reporting on community meetings, quotes that Johnson thought told the truth about what wasn’t being said. His professor wisely steered him toward fiction, clearly the best fit since Johnson believes that the facts don’t always get you to the truth, whereas in fiction, the narrative becomes the “meaning-making machine.”

Stiles explained how writing biographies about individuals allows him the scope to talk about the world, something that his biographies are known for—societal perspective. He has a new book about General George Armstrong Custer, Custer’s Trials, coming out Oct. 27, and it’s already generating buzz. Look for it! 

But what I really, really, really, really want to talk about is this: Both Pulitzer winners explained how they seek to find the humanity in those who may be considered tyrants, murderers, or even monsters.


Finding the humanity in their subjects allows them to construct believable characters, whether it is Cornelius Vanderbilt or Kim Jong Il. 

This attitude is sorely lacking in our current public discourse where we end up demonizing politicians, people who are pro or anti abortion, pro gun or anti gun, etc…..I could go on ad nauseam. I’m thinking that listening and recognizing an individual’s humanity might take some of the wind out of HATE’s sails. And that would benefit us all. 

I’m scarce this week and the next month or so for two reasons:

1) We just bought a house! EEk! Double EEEK! in San Francisco!! Triple EEEEk! I think it was the 7th? house we put an offer on since May. And as I’ve said: Buying a house in San Francisco is like winning the lottery in a parallel universe. When you finally win the bidding war, you are no longer certain that you have won. In any case, we are swamped with moving “to dos.”

2) LITQUAKE!!!! Hundreds of authors, a packed schedule of events, culminating in Litcrawl on Oct. 17. 

Soooo, please be patient with me…..

Oh, and here’s a link to the New York Review of Books Interview between President Obama and Marilyn Robinson. It speaks to this topic quite nicely.

34 thoughts on “LitQuake – The Bridge Between Fiction and Nonfiction

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    “facts don’t always get you to the truth, whereas in fiction, the narrative becomes the ‘meaning-making machine’.”—I love that. Great concept.

    Congratulations on the house! That’s so exciting. San Francisco is a wonderful city. I love visiting there.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks, Carrie. We’re already mourning having to move from a neighborhood. But we’re excited about living in a new one. 😀 It was a fascinating evening with two amazing writers. Litquake is da bomb!

  2. Beth Anderson says:

    Excellent post! And you bridged literature to reality, too. That’s one of the great values of literature and liberal arts. Fareed Zakaria has been talking about it recently as he has a new book out (which I haven’t read). He talks about how the parts of the job market that will grow are areas in which human relationships are key – robots and computers can’t do that. We definitely need to nurture this ability to recognize the humanity of every person.

  3. FictionFan says:

    Yep, the demonizing, particularly of politicians, must put many decent people off standing for public office – self-defeating.

    Congratulations! Good luck with the move! 😀

  4. Lady Fancifull says:

    Well I shall miss you during your busy LitQuake and no doubt even busier pack up, shed tears, say goodbyes, unpacks and slowly ‘mark’ your new nest so it feels excitingly yours, and you embrace your new community. Great post, as ever. I MOST value literature when it safely teaches me how to understand the most ‘alien’ others. There are of course some minds which I really don’t want to get inside, but partly that is because some of the writers making stories with those kinds of (generally fictional) minds aren’t actually trying to find humanity where it is almost impossible to find it, but are turning those minds into salacious entertainment (dismembering of beautiful women and abuse of children literature as a schlocky titillatory exercise) But, I really really do want to understand and walk in the shoes a little, of the ‘like me, but different’

    Thoughtful post Jilanne, and hope the move and all goes brilliantly, and we will all look forward to seeing pictures of the bookshelves in their new pride of place!

  5. Ste J says:

    Congrats on the new house, I would love to go to literary events such as this, I need to get my travel shoes on. Finding humanity in everybody is something that is so forward thinking that it really should be taught in schools as something mandatory.

  6. Letizia says:

    First of all congratulations on your new house: this is very exciting news indeed! Room for all your books, hooray! Secondly, I love the image of you taking notes while tending bar.

  7. Mrs. P says:

    It’s interesting that they both humanize bad characters. I think this same idea has spread into the television/cable industries with shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad…both extremely popular.

    I hope Litquake was a huge success! And the house, WOW! Now comes the real work…packing and moving. How long does the escrow take in California? And…what area did you land in? 😀 😀 Curious people want to know. I am sure that I was a cat in one of my lifetimes…way too curious for my own good!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I’m recovering from last night’s 4-hour Litcrawl, the culminating event for Litquake. Something like 85 venues spread out over a couple of walkable miles with 400 authors, reading (or performing) their work. I worked three events in succession. Had a fabulous time! And from what I could tell, everyone else did, too. 😀

      Oh, and the house. It’s in the Excelsior neighborhood (good-bye to our beloved Dogpatch! sob!) near the Balboa BART station.

      • Mrs. P says:

        If I lived in Dogpatch I’d want a loft…always wanted to live in an industrial loft. Don’t know Excelsior too well. I see some of the houses have fantastic views. Did you get so lucky?

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          Yes, we’ll be moving from an industrial loft, concrete floors, 20-ft ceilings, factory windows, etc. We’ll also be moving from the sunniest side of the city to one that channels fog toward the old Candlestick Park—that is now being turned into an entirely new community.

          As you know, SF is all about micro-climates. We will be at the southwestern base of McLaren Park, so views are not as awesome as being on top of the hill. But then, it should be sunnier and less windy at the base. Our second floor windows do have views of the city and McLaren Park from one direction and San Bruno Mountain to the southwest. We’ve been higher up in McLaren Park for our son’s soccer games, and it’s been so windy and foggy that the soccer ball would roll without being kicked, and kids would strain to see the goal at the other end of the field. That said, the house was only on the market for 14 days, and we didn’t spy it until two days before bids were due, so we’re not exactly sure what the microclimate of the immediate neighborhood is. I’m thinking that with global warming accelerating, we’ll be thankful we’re in a cooler part of the city, especially since air conditioning is not standard in single family homes.

          • Mrs. P says:

            Wow…I envy where you used to live but I guess it’s not really the greatest place for kids.

            San Bruno Mountain is nice…Candlestick is cold. I am surprised they are building a community there. One thing I recall about foggy areas is that the fog lifts later in the afternoon, though yours sounds like it goes well into the afternoon. And aren’t some months just gorgeous? A lot to learn about your new digs. I hope it works out well for you and your family…a new adventure for sure! 😀

          • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

            We’re closer to San Bruno Mtn than Candlestick. I won’t really know how the fog flows through there until we live there for awhile. It’s been gloriously sunny here while we wait for el niño to hit. Warm, too. I hope we’ll have our own mini sun belt near the base of McLaren Park. Our son has a rope swing hanging from a massive overhead beam in our loft. He loves it. That’s one thing he’s going to miss. But the yard should make up for part of that. Onward!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks, Britt! Things are a bit crazy at the moment. December will be more relaxing. Until then, must weed possessions, pack the house, make sure the new house is ready for move-in, do all the change-of-address/utility transfer stuff, make three cat-in-hat hats (complete with cats in the hats) for Halloween, put on our son’s birthday party, and cheer the Cubbies to victory (well, we’ll see), and keep revising my stories…all within the next six weeks. Needless to say, I’m NOT doing NaNoWriMo this year. 😀 Very exciting!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thank YOU for stopping by, Catherine. It is such a privilege to live in a place where these kinds of conversations take place. This is just one of many reasons why I love living in San Francisco, and why we made the decision to put down roots here.

  8. Shakti Ghosal says:

    Great post.

    Is there really something called non-fiction? For after all, what is dressed and dished out as non-fiction is really the occurring world of the author.

    Said in another way, it is but a narrative about how a specific situation occurs for the author, how his world view and frames of reference for that situation and the network of unexamined ideas, beliefs,biases, prejudices, social and cultural embedded-ness, and taken-for-granted assumptions which are brought in by these.

    With so much of shaping, contouring and limiting influence on the author as he narrates what he sees, is this also not another kind of fiction really?


    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Hi Shakti,

      Yes, you’ve made an excellent point. Every writer comes to nonfiction with their own world view that cannot be set aside. Every detail of a situation cannot be recorded and shared, so the “slant” of a piece lies within the details that are carefully selected by an author and arranged within the narrative. This is the “truth” that the author sees and shares with readers. So one must always read nonfiction with an eye toward the writer’s selection or omission of details and interpretation of meaning. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


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