My story "Concussions" [presented in Glimmer Train Stories] comes from family experience, and there are at least thirty other stories from that source as well. I have long felt that the most precious vein for material is from just before I knew who I was and what was going on. I think I was far behind most people in that realm—certainly behind all the girls—because for me that period of not-quite-aware extended until I was twelve or so. I think to that time I still experienced life only as it unfolded—with minimal if any awareness of the processes of living life—both my own and those of my parents and brothers and sister. And somehow those "pure" experiences have translated themselves into fiction better than anything else I've found.
The starting point for many of those stories was some aspect of the place where I grew up. Though I did not realize it until many such stories had been written, it is clear looking back that they came into being in the same way: I found a little piece of emotion in myself in a specific place of my childhood—the cove behind our house, the baseball field at dusk, Halloween night when I was dressed as a bum, the woods where we hid girlie magazines in a tree. And being able to sort of re-experience (or in some way experience for the first time) my excitement there gave start to a story; the look and emotion of that place I loved so much as a boy has given me yet another set of gifts as a man.
Other stories from that same age-perspective have begun with a vision of one or the other of my parents standing amid some aspect of that magical place. "Concussions" began with an image of what became its first paragraph—my thin, girlish mother standing in light spring clothes next to a shiny black Buick under the innocent-blue sky of the fifties. I certainly saw my parents standing in those places back then, but I had no inkling of any emotion or feeling they held, until I rediscovered the visions of them from the perspective of many years later.
So, to at last get to the question of how to know which of the myriad of details, personalities, and events from real life to include: The answer is that I have never felt in control of those decisions. If I am lucky enough to find the place and the little piece of emotion that gives me something close to a shiver, and if I can capture that pairing of place and feeling in a beginning paragraph, then the story—the fruit of the emotion and the place—seems to take over what gets told.
Over the decades of writing about my family during the years when I was a boy, that process has operated so strongly that I am by now no longer sure what really happened to me—or to us as a family—and what has come to be "true" by virtue of its having been part of a story. The primary event of "Concussions"—the head injury to the boy—did indeed occur, and was the most traumatic event of my childhood; but nearly all of the rest of the story's details and events are some uncertain blend of real and made-up. The happy part is that I think the other members of my family will vouch that the place is real and the emotions are the real ones from the time.
And for me at least, that's the best a family-stories story writer can hope for.