Daniel Wallace's mother with her second husband, Wallace's father, whom she eloped with when she was 18. (Daniel Wallace/Bitter Southerner)

Daniel Wallace’s mother told everyone she knew about her brief marriage during the summer of 1943, still dripping in her swimsuit while standing before the county clerk, taking her vows. Her new husband was 18. She was 12.

Being a child bride was something Wallace’s mother was proud of, “because it cut to the chase of the kind of woman my mother was, and who she always had been: defiant, sexual, shocking, a woman who bridled when the spotlight was on anyone other than her.” As it turned out, it also wasn’t true.

Wallace is the author of Big Fish, a novel about a son who tries to reconcile his father’s life with the tall tales he told. In real life, his mother was just as messy with her family history, and in this essay for the Bitter Southerner, Wallace reconciles the mother he knew with the tales she told.

It’s something you hear a lot when you start digging into the past, even the relatively recent past. There is always someone who knows what you want to know, but they’re dead, alas, and now no one knows what really happened. Without a witness it’s all hearsay, a story…

One reason I write fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, is the freedom the form allows me, which is almost total. I’m free to write the story I want to write, the way I want to write it, and if something displeases me or doesn’t work, I can delete it — a word, a paragraph, or much, much more — all from the comfort of my office, couch, or king-sized bed. The only conflict I experience is on the page. I’ve never been much for research or being investigative, asking people questions, insinuating myself into their real lives.

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