Horror stories about authors writing fiction about their mothers
January 5, 2017 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for cautionary tales about authors who wrote fiction with thinly-veiled or semi-autobiographical or explicitly acknowledged characters based on their real mothers.

I'm particularly interested in stories where the whole thing goes badly — the mother gets angry, the book is a failure, etc.

The one example I have so far is Margaret Drabble, who waited until her mother died to write The Peppered Moth. The portrait was not flattering, and Drabble's sister, author A.S. Byatt, objected to the representation. Critics deemed the book unsuccessful from a literary standpoint.

Thanks for your help!
posted by alicat to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, maybe?
posted by mcbeth at 11:09 AM on January 5, 2017

The Glass Castle is not a novel. It's Jeanette Walls' memoir.

"Postcards from the Edge" by Carrie Fisher however, is a semi-autobiographical novel. She wrote a few others as well that were based on her life but the characters had different names. Not sure how Debbie felt about her portrayal in the books.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2017

All of the Ya-Ya books by Rebecca Wells are semi-autobiographical, and well, you just have to read the books to know how that turned out.
posted by all about eevee at 1:16 PM on January 5, 2017

Pat Conroy alienated much of his family with The Great Santini and other works. His mother submitted the book in evidence for her divorce trial; his father signed copies hoping that the reader would appreciate his son's fiction.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:12 PM on January 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Patti Davis immediately came to mind.
posted by SisterHavana at 2:15 PM on January 5, 2017

Thomas Wolfe wrote semi-autobiographical novels about family and acquaintances in his NC home town. Many were quite annoyed with his less-than-flattering descriptions, but I've never heard any specifics about his mother's reaction. He stayed away for a long time after Look Homeward, Angel was published (and his mother is one of that book's major characters). According to Wikipedia, "In an ironic twist, the citizens of Asheville were more upset this time because they hadn't been included" when the sequel, Of Time and the River, came out in 1935.
posted by Rash at 2:51 PM on January 5, 2017

Nancy Mitford put a semi-fictionalized version of her childhood into The Pursuit of Love and a more directly autobiographical version into her essay 'Mothering the Mitfords', where she described her mother as 'living in a dream world of her own':
So what did my mother do all day? She says now, when cross-examined, that she lived for us. Perhaps she did, but nobody could say that she lived with us. It was not the custom then. I think that nothing in my life has changed more than the relationship between mothers and young children. In those days a distance was always kept. Even so she was perhaps abnormally detached. On one occasion Unity rushed into the drawing-room, where she was at her writing-table, saying: 'Muv, Muv, Decca is standing on the roof - she says she's going to commit suicide!' 'Oh, poor duck,' said my mother, 'I hope she won't do anything so terrible' and went on writing.
It didn't go down too well with her mother, who wrote: 'It seemed when I read it that everything I had ever done for any of you had turned out wrong and badly, a terrible thought, and can't be remedied now.' Nancy wrote her a classic sorry-not-sorry letter in response: 'Anything which now seems odd or unfortunate in my childhood wasn't your fault, it was that of the age we lived in. Children were not considered then, or at least girls weren't.'
posted by verstegan at 3:17 PM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a semi-autobiographical novel that draws on Jeanette Winterson's relationship with her evangelical mother. She revisits these elements in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 4:04 PM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Jamaica Kincaid is pretty outspoken about her very difficult relationship with her mother and how it inspired her to be a writer and is a major theme in a lot of her works. See Annie John or "Girl" and maybe even the less fictional Autobiography of My Mother.
posted by TwoStride at 4:40 PM on January 5, 2017

With Jamaica Kincaid, I think Lucy too.

Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt have famously had differences. In addition to The Peppered Moth, both of their novels have what seem likely to be characters based on family members, e.g. The Realms of Gold for Drabble, and The Game by Byatt.
posted by BibiRose at 6:24 AM on January 6, 2017

Nancy Mitford put a semi-fictionalized version of her childhood into The Pursuit of Love and a more directly autobiographical version into her essay 'Mothering the Mitfords', where she described her mother as 'living in a dream world of her own'.

True enough, but given her daughters, one can hardly blame her. The father gloried in the notoriety. It was, IIRC, Jessica's Hons and Rebels (a me-too memoir by younger sister) that really got the family goat. Nancy and Evelyn Waugh discuss the book in their letters, she calling it utter fiction.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:20 AM on January 6, 2017

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