One of the most common questions I’ve received this year from readers is: “How much of Hand Me Down is true?” As a short answer, I say about 80%. But the truer answer is much more complicated.
The basic storyline of a mother choosing her convict husband over her daughters is actually true and did indeed happen to me and my sister. Most of the characters are based on real people, the places Liz and Jaime live are where my sister and I lived, so as I began writing, I started with my memories. I conjured up scenes and conversations from my past, from a time in my life I will never forget, and made tons of notes. I did research by reading old journals from when I was fourteen, reliving all the pain of those years, finding partial scenes written out in my messy cursive, snippets of dialogue that I’d actually formatted in quotes so I would know exactly what was said. At the time, I wanted a witness to the things the adults around me were saying, a record of the lines they used. Some of those lines made it into the published book.
At first, scenes very closely resembled my recollections. But as I revised, the story shifted in small ways. I added lines of dialogue and removed others; I exaggerated mannerisms, inserted character traits to supplement the ones the real people had; I changed timelines of events, when certain conversations took place, or who was involved. I studied with Pam Houston, who has made a career out of using personal experience as the basis for her fiction, so I learned to walk the line between fiction and non from a master. I’ve discovered that I love having a foot in both worlds, so I allowed myself to make the necessary adjustments for the good of the story. The details, the inconsequential daily minutia, were altered, but the emotional journey Liz makes is 100% true.
Over the years my continued work on the book organically created something that, while based on real events, is also indeed a work of fiction. Fiction that rings true, that reveals truths—what it means to be family, the power of forgiveness, the incredible bonds of sisterhood—is my favorite kind of writing. I hope that’s what I’ve accomplished with Hand Me Down.