There are some books you write that everybody knows are fiction. You made them up, which is exactly what readers expect novelists to do. And then there are the others…Winging It is one of the others. The question of how real it is – to what extent it’s autobiography – has been around since the day it was published. One of the very first reviews it received on Goodreads includes this: “I am thinking this is a true story???” and others have asked the same question. That question being: how true is this? How much is fiction and how much autobiography? It’s time, I think, to set the record straight – or at least as straight as I’m prepared to make it.
Well, Winging It is an exercise in obfuscation. It was written in part by my brother Jimmy and in part by me, and some of those parts that seem to be by Jimmy are in fact mine. When Jimmy wrote the first draft, he called it Scenes From a Life, which may provide a clue – but may not. Names have been changed, starting at the very beginning – Jimmy’s name was not Carlton and neither is mine. But Jimmy had an unusual life and we knew from the very start that some people from our early years would know exactly who the protagonist was. Some name changes were to protect others. We went to great lengths to hide Barbara’s identity and we did that for what I consider to be good reasons which are set out in the book:
Barbara was appalled at the idea her past might be revealed. It broke her up. She talked about the disgrace it would bring on her husband’s children to have it known in a town like that that their stepmother had been a porn star. She said her husband would divorce her. She’d have to move on and she says she’s too old to move again. Whatever she has, she wants to keep.
I don’t believe that anyone who was not an intimate of C and Barbara will ever unravel the question of her identity and I’m confident she will never be tracked down and disgraced. But C herself must be fairly obvious and I don’t imagine that there is too much difficulty in working out who Marty Bone was – or A, or B. Margaret Holmes? One of those two names is not the one she really had, but anyone who was at school with Jimmy knows the identity of the girl he made pregnant. Nor will it be difficult to work out what school that was, because the book mentions Northumberland Street, which identifies the city Jimmy and I grew up in, and Doctor Comstock is so close to the name of the headmistress of a girl’s High School there that anyone from that time in that place will be able to name the schools that both Jimmy and Margaret (and I) attended.
The book does not tell you this, but I showed it to Margaret before publication and said I would remove all references to her if she asked me to. She was fascinated to learn things she had never known about Jimmy’s later life but she told me that she had no problem with the book appearing or with her part in it.
There are some things that Jimmy did not include in the original script and I have not added them. For example, when you read it you will know that our parents visited him in London but it will seem that he and I were only in contact by phone. That isn’t true – I saw him in London more often than our parents did. While we were growing up I had a friend who acted to the hilt the part of the attractive blonde flirt and when I saw some of Jimmy’s exuberantly gay conduct (which he always kept secret from the rest of the family) I said, ‘That’s Helen!’ and he said, yes, when he flirted with men he did it in exactly the way he had seen Helen behave. Helen appears in Winging It, but only by proxy – we took her name and gave it to the secretary who fell in love with Jimmy and whom he failed so disgracefully. And while we’re talking about Helen, this is a good time to say that Jimmy really did love wearing women’s clothes (but only among people he was confident would understand) and he was widely known at that stage of his life (once again, to those he knew well) as Lucy.
Reggie wasn’t called Reggie, Ben wasn’t called Ben, Guy wasn’t called Guy and Molly Brown was called something else entirely and did not work for the Toronto Dominion Bank – but all of them existed and, by and large, did the things they do in the book.
That, I think, is as far as I want to take this exercise in openness. And just to show how open I’m really being, let me make it clear that one question remains for anyone reading this post: is it really being written by Kat? Or by Jimmy?
I’m afraid you’ll have to form your own opinion on that, with no help from me.