A few weeks ago, I was lucky to get a chance to have a master class with Suzanne Berne, a novelist and nonfiction writer, who was visiting George Mason University.
In Berne’s nonfiction book, called Missing Lucile, she writes about her search for a grandmother she never knew, a mother her father never knew: her grandmother died when her father was a little boy. And she does, in my opinion, a really amazing job of letting the reader know when she is imagining something about her grandmother. She also did an astonishing amount of research about the locations and places and people surrounding her grandmother’s life.
In the master class with her, we talked a lot about writing about the distant past—the past you weren’t there for—in nonfiction. We talked about imagining, but letting the reader know that you’re imagining a scene or an event or a conversation, letting the reader know that whatever you’re imagining didn’t actually happen.
I always feel as if I have a hard time writing about things I imagine when I write nonfiction, and I’m curious: Do you write about the past you weren’t there for in nonfiction? How do you handle it?
Leslie Maxwell is the nonfiction editor at Phoebe.