Guest Tanya Egan Gibson on Unknowable

Guest Tanya Egan Gibson on Unknowable

[How well do you know your friends? Do you know them as well as favorite fictional characters? In today’s guest post Tanya Egan Gibson (How to Buy a Love of Reading) reflects on how by reading and knowing characters, we’re motivated to close the human “gap” of getting to know and understand the truth of real-life people. ]


At the beginning of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says he wishes for “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” He’s had enough of confidences from people he barely knows; he doesn’t want emotional involvement with strangers. But F. Scott Fitzgerald did, I believe. I suppose every writer of fiction does.

I write because other people are a paradox—essentially like me (human), yet essentially unknowable. I stare at strangers on line in the grocery store and want to know their stories. Does that T-shirt with the dancing cat on it mean something to her, or is it something she threw on? Is that last-minute candy bar purchase a happy treat or a guilty pleasure? Is she glancing at her cell-phone to check the time or to wish a call into happening? Her doctor? Her boss? Her child? Her lover?

Does she love someone? What does love feel like for her? We all want to be loved. But loved how? What feels like love to someone else doesn’t necessarily feel like love to me. I want to know what her love feels like. This is where and why the storytelling starts for me, this what if?-ing. To bridge the gap between myself and other people, I make them up in my head.

There’s always distance between people, even those we know well. I imagine a Zeno’s Paradox of Relationships where the space between us and those we care about is halved with every interaction, every effort, every disclosure–a gap that shrinks but never quite disappears. Most of the characters in my novel, How To Buy a Love of Reading, suffer from loneliness because they give up on other people, believing that nobody can ever understand them. (A little gap seems just as daunting to them as a big one.)

It isn’t just other people’s unknowability that plagues them; it is their own fear of being unknown. Hunter Cay, a sixteen-year-old bibliophile and substance abuser, is desperate to be seen for who he is–to be read accurately. He looks like he has everything–he’s handsome, wealthy, and idolized by his friends and his friends’ parents alike. But he makes it impossible for anybody but his overweight, unpopular, book-hating best friend, Carley, to crack open his “cover” to read his true “text” (and accept the unexpected story she discovers therein). He chooses the fiction he reads and the fictions he constructs about himself over real life because in the world of pretend there is no gap. You can be the character.

As much as I adore fiction, and as much as I turn to it to make sense of life, and to be entertained, and not infrequently to be comforted, I don’t think the real-life gap between real-life people is a bad thing. The mystery of other people draws me to them; the slow unveiling of another human being is a beautiful, mesmerizing dance.

In the end, I care about people more than characters–even my own. It’s easy to fall in love with characters, especially those of your own creation–they do what you want them to, they lay their souls bare, and (you can imagine) they understand you completely. The unreal is addictive because bonding with characters requires no emotional risks. (Hunter fantasizes about the authors of the books in which he buries himself, making up scenarios in which they befriend him in bookstores and bars, but when he is confronted with two real authors who want to help him, he is unable to be real.) Characters are easy; real people are hard. And what is easy is rarely most worthwhile.

I can’t imagine a life without stories. But fiction, I think, is a means, not an end; a prescription, not a cure. It suggests that peering closer to people is a good thing. It promises that we are not alone, that the universality of the “gap” can, paradoxically, bring us together. It is a “privileged [glimpse] into the human heart” that inspires us to read real people more closely, more thoughtfully, and–I hope–with more care.

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Katharine Davis’s A Slender Thread in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Katharine Davis and A Slender Thread. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

3 thoughts on “Guest Tanya Egan Gibson on Unknowable

  1. “This is where and why the storytelling starts for me, this what if?-ing. To bridge the gap between myself and other people, I make them up in my head.”

    Love love love love LOVE that!!! A lot of times writing is that way for me too (although I admit, a lot of times it’s also just that I’m writing a story I would like to read about — adventures I might like to live myself, but can’t).

    “I can’t imagine a life without stories. But fiction, I think, is a means, not an end; a prescription, not a cure.”

    Wow, love that too. Okay, it’s official, I’m going to have to link to this post on my blog tomorrow.

    Thanks for being awesome!

  2. I love this take on real life, on fiction, on characters, on people – how interesting!

    By the way, I do a lot of the same wondering about people. I can entertain myself for hours just people-watching and wondering about their lives.

  3. Thank you, Kristan and Keetha! It always feels wonderful to encounter folks who wonder about the world/other people the same way. (For me, interacting with other people about fiction decreases the “gap”–makes me feel less different/eccentric.)

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