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Stranger Than Fiction

The topic of this morning’s “This American Life” on NPR was coincidences. It made me want to tell about a couple of mine.

While working on a remodeling project one fall day back in the seventies, I spun the radio dial, looking for something diverting, and landed on a channel I’d never listened to before. A few minutes later I almost fell off the ladder when the DJ said, “You know what today is? According to the Guinness Book of World Records, today is the anniversary of the day Harold Oaks of Hood River broke the world apple picking record.”

Harold Oaks! He’d been my fiance! I’d been there watching the day he picked those apples!

As if this weren’t enough, the DJ went on. “I thought I’d give him call,” he said, “but instead I got his mother on the line. She thanked me for calling and said, as a matter of fact, Harold’s getting married today.”

Wow. What a weird way to find out what happened to the guy you almost married. Maybe Facebook makes this sort of random surprise a thing of the past?

Fast forward about twenty years. In the antiques mall in Lincoln City on the coast, I picked up a beautiful old scrapbook. The first time I went to put something in it, I saw that it wasn’t empty after all, as I’d thought. A few pages in, someone had pasted an autographed concert program and single newspaper article. The review of pianist Samuel Sorin was written by:

Kathryn Oaks! Harold’s mother!

I am not making this up.

Poor Kathryn. She spent a good deal of the review lamenting the poor attendance in the Hood River High School Auditorium for Mr. Sorin’s most excellent performance. She was a former opera singer herself, and now I think how hard it must have been for her to be stuck in Hood River, mothering twin boys, who would have been about three at the time the esteemed pianist briefly graced the fruit growing hamlet. I remembering seeing a gorgeous photo of her, dressed as Juliet. I was mightily impressed. I could have been her fan, but she didn’t like me. Maybe I wasn’t patient or appreciative enough, watching her son pick all those apples. But it was boring! I would have preferred hearing her sing opera….

Anyway, coincidences like this happen in real life, but you could never get away with them in serious fiction. I ran up against this in writing BRIDES OF EDEN: A TRUE STORY IMAGINED. The editor who’d worked with me on my previous books wanted me to forget what really happened when Edmund Creffield came to Corvallis in 1903. She and the others at Random House thought I should just fictionalize whatever I wanted and make it a novel.

But that was the whole point! That this strange story was true. It all really happened! I’m glad I stuck to my guns and the folks at HarperCollins agreed. Real life IS stranger than fiction sometimes, and not everything should be turned into a novel.
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