There are a number of reasons a writer may waffle on the question of which events in the book match up with her life. Most writers receive the question of whether something in their fiction “really happened” as an accusation, without being exactly sure what they are being accused of. There can be the egotistical concern that a writer is considered less “creative” if what she has done is “simply” to document what happened in “real life.” But everybody knows, or should, that just because something happened does not guarantee dynamite on the page. Effervescent dinner parties recorded and transcribed read like somber autopsies. Also, a writer may wish to preserve some privacy—not only for herself, but also to protect the people she is already betraying.
Still, the connection between writing and reality is impossible to ignore. This is not just a question of “realism,” or of the sort of undramatized alignment with actual events that fills the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Consider Tolstoy. Levin’s proposal to Kitty in Anna Karenina (which takes place over a board game) mirrored Tolstoy’s own proposal, and the scene in which the young fiancé insists on showing his bride-to-be the diaries recounting his extensive youthful debaucheries also came straight from Tolstoy’s life. He seems not to have gone to any great lengths to disguise identities—the maid in Levin’s house, Agafya Mikhaylovna, has the precise name of one of his own maids, and in the early drafts of War and Peace the central family was called “the Tolstoys.” According to one of his biographers, Tolstoy performed his work in progress for his family and friends. The biographer makes it sound like a party: “Doctor Bers arranged an evening at the house. … Tolstoy was to read aloud from his novel. … [T]he more pages he read, the more vividly they all began to recognize themselves. ‘Mama?’, the hostess ecclaimed. ‘Marya Dmitriyevna Akhrosimov is you!’”
—From a piece by Mona Simpson about the Italian writer Elena Ferrante, which appeared in The New Republic.