How Much of This Book is Based on My Life
by Susan Pashman
At readings, the question is inevitable: How much of this book is based on your life?
The answer is complicated. Upper West Side Story is pure fiction. It evolved from a dinner at which someone bragged about the fact that six black children were being transferred into his son’s class in a white neighborhood; the man thought this would be a great experience for his son.
Appalled, I went home and asked myself what could go wrong with this well-intentioned idea. That gave me the inciting incident from which the book’s plot spins out.
But, as any fiction writer does, I visualize my characters as I write them, and for this I rely on people I know. Who can say why a particular acquaintance comes to mind when I need a very upright District Attorney and want a female for the role? Who can say why another acquaintance’s two adorable kids popped into my head when I wanted a young boy and his sister for the family at the center of this novel?
The book is not “about” these acquaintances. As characters, they’ve been assigned features they don’t have in real life. And—most important—they’ve been set inside a plot that in no way resembles their actual lives.
Apart from characters, there are small events that flesh out the main story line, and sometimes these are drawn directly from my life. Or, in the case of this novel, from the lives of my own children.
I raised two boys on my own in Brooklyn, a bit of a hairy experience. When Zack, they young boy at the center of this book, tells of having gotten locked inside a neighborhood church with his best friend, and having gotten home that night by jumping off the roof of a wing attached to the church, this is a story my son actually told me once enough time had passed so I could endure the harrowing details.
Another real experience my son had I attributed to the father in the book. When my son received his first grownup bike as a birthday present, he told his classmates. One of them followed him home, begging to try out the bike. When my son agreed, the child drove off with the bike and was never seen again. It broke my heart to have to explain to my son why a kid takes a bike and hands it over to older kids who will disassemble it for parts they can sell when the two younger boys would have had many good times with it together.
In Upper West Side Story, I use this story to explain why the father grew up determined to help bring about the social change that could help children of different races trust one another.
I used the story exactly as it happened. You can read this story for yourself starting at page 148 in Upper West Side Story.