You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

  • By Len Kruger
  • March 25, 2024

Bad Questions, the autobiographical fallacy, and me.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

When you write a first-person novel called Bad Questions, you get a lot of questions. Is this you? Is that character your father or mother or teacher or friend? Did all this stuff really happen? Enter the autobiographical fallacy, wherein the reader assumes or suspects that the narrator is, in fact, the author presenting their life story.

With my novel, it’s a fair assumption. Bad Questions is the story of Billy Blumberg, a 12-year-old boy living in 1971 Montgomery County, Maryland. I was a 12-year-old boy growing up in late-1960s/early-1970s Montgomery County. Both Billy and I moved from Silver Spring to Rockville in the seventh grade. Billy is obsessed with Mad Magazine, the Washington Senators baseball team, and most any 60s/70s TV show you can think of. As was I.

And we both had a memorable teacher in the sixth grade. In 1969, my sixth-grade teacher said a lot of things in class that I doubt she’d be able to get away with today. She told us our minds would momentarily snap at some point in our lives. She read out loud to us the highly disturbing Edgar Allan Poe story “The Masque of the Red Death.” She liked to tease me about my 12-year-old-boy slovenliness (“Who does your hair, the north wind?”). And on the back of my class picture, she inscribed, “To the fashion plate of the sixth grade.”

I don’t remember any of this bothering me all that much. I thought she was cool and funny, and honestly, she was one of my favorite teachers at Four Corners Elementary. After sixth grade, I went on to Sligo Junior High and never saw her again. Why would I?

But as I was plotting out Bad Questions, I thought: What if Billy — my fictional persona — does see this teacher again? What if she leads him down a very weird and inappropriate path? This is where Billy’s story and mine diverge, and how the novel’s plot was set in motion. 

Then there is the issue of the other characters in Bad Questions based on real people from my life. Again, similarities and differences. For example, Billy’s father shares some personality characteristics with my father. But in other ways, they couldn’t be more different. Billy’s father is a depressed Hebrew-school principal who becomes enamored with the spirit world. My dad was a non-depressed scientist at the National Bureau of Standards who, to the end of his life at age 86, had bottomless contempt for claims of the paranormal and subscribed to a quarterly magazine called the Skeptical Inquirer.

With the father and many of the characters in Bad Questions, I did what fiction writers do: used selected scraps of memory from my past and just made up the rest.

But beyond the surface similarities, how autobiographical is Bad Questions? Is the concept of the “autobiographical fallacy” itself a fallacy? A good friend of mine who read the book told me, “OMG, this character is so you,” meaning, I suppose, she could recognize Billy’s narrative voice and sensibility as a credible version of myself. Fair enough. Also fair to ask: Isn’t any type of creative writing autobiography at some level?

So, then: Is Billy me? Well…it’s not a bad question.

[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop‘s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher. The Inner Loop connects talented local authors to lit lovers in the community through live readings, author interviews, featured book sales at Potter’s House, and through Eat.Drink.Read., a collaboration with restaurant partners Pie Shop, Shaw’s Tavern, and Reveler’s Hour to promote the author through special events and menu and takeout inserts.]

Len Kruger lives in Washington, DC. His debut novel, Bad Questions, was the winner of the 2023 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Zoetrope-All Story, the Barcelona Review, the Potomac Review, Gargoyle, Splonk, and the anthology This is What America Looks Like: Poetry & Fiction from DC, Maryland, Virginia. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Maryland.

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