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The best books on Autofiction

recommended by Juliet Jacques

Autofiction is writing that blurs the boundaries between autobiography and fiction. The writer of Trans: A Memoir picks her top five examples of the genre.

Juliet Jacques

Jacques's 'Transgender Journey' was published in the Guardian between 2010 and 2012. It was the first serialisation of a gender reassignment in a major British publication and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011. Her book on Rayner Heppenstall was published in 2007 and Trans: A Memoir was published by Verso in 2015. She has written for publications including the New Statesman, Granta, and the London Review of Books. She lives in London.

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Juliet Jacques

Jacques's 'Transgender Journey' was published in the Guardian between 2010 and 2012. It was the first serialisation of a gender reassignment in a major British publication and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011. Her book on Rayner Heppenstall was published in 2007 and Trans: A Memoir was published by Verso in 2015. She has written for publications including the New Statesman, Granta, and the London Review of Books. She lives in London.

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You write in your book that all you could get publishers to consider was a personal story. Why is the memoir what’s expected from trans writers?

There’s a really long history of trans people writing memoir that goes back as far as the earliest sex-reassignment surgeries, like Lili Elbe, who died in the course of an operation in 1931. A couple of years after her death an autobiography came out, called Man into Woman. That’s quite an interesting text in itself because the central character has a male pseudonym and a female pseudonym that weren’t the names Lili Elbe used either pre- or post-transition. Then it’s edited by someone called Niels Hoyer, which is in itself a pseudonym. So you have this text that’s gone through several layers of authorship and editorship, and no-one will put their name to it. But of course what this text—and a lot of the ones that followed—aimed to do was counter sensationalist mass-media approaches to transition.

“I got really fascinated by the ethics of contriving an experience in order to write about it. Does that make it genuine or not?”

Obviously, in a pre-internet age the memoir was the main way in which transsexual people, in particular, could explain their transition to a bewildered and maybe hostile public and work towards greater acceptance. That, I think, in this country still remains the case. I think in North America it’s different. They’re starting to develop much more of a trans-fiction writing culture. But in the UK I think we are still at the point where any trans person working within relatively mainstream media would be expected to give an account of themselves in this form. Certainly that’s what I’ve been asked to do off the back of doing the Guardian series and it’s what Paris Lees is doing off the back of her media profile. You can say no if you want to but you also sort of can’t.

You’ve mentioned your concerns with the politics of writing about yourself, but you also say you receive a lot of comments, a lot of gratitude from your readers, that your own mother was reading your pieces. How did the knowledge you were helping others—you mention fears of narcissism—help you negotiate your concerns?

It was a very difficult balance to strike. The key problem was: how much do I give away? There were certain problems in writing the memoir that I could anticipate because I’d already done the Guardian series. I knew intertwining my personal and professional lives in this way was psychologically quite damaging. It had a pretty detrimental effect on my mental health, which is then covered in the book.

On the one hand you want—for genuine personal and existential reasons—to give quite a lot of things away to help younger trans people understand what might be in store for them. To help family and friends, lovers, colleagues to understand what this process involves. On the other hand, you’re pushed to do that by publishers and editors. There was a tension in this book with my editor, with him wanting me to delve further into more personal aspects of my life that I found difficult to do. The process of resisting that was quite draining too, working out when to resist and when to let the reader in. Some of the reviews have picked up on the fact that, for a memoir, it’s actually very distant from the reader. That’s partly because I was reacting against this kind of prurience, this insistence that trans lives are inauthentic and the only way to counter that is to bombard people with information about the reality of it. I think that comes at a tremendous psychic cost to the writer. I think it also stops the discourse going to different places, it stops us moving into fiction, or other forms of writing, or just writing about other issues entirely.

One thing I thought was hugely successful in the book is that it has a compelling quality of the day-to-day. Is this a characteristic feature of memoir and not fiction?

No, I don’t think it is. I’ve read plenty of novels that deal with fairly quotidian things. One of my favourites was Lydie Salvayre’s Everyday Life, which is about a woman gradually being driven to distraction by working in an office. And as an undergraduate I loved The Office. It was my favourite television show and I thought it was brilliant the way it quietly built these narratives of frustrated love and despair and dissatisfaction in an environment that—on the face of it—couldn’t be more banal. I loved those shots between the scenes where you see the paper whirling round the photocopiers. I think there is very much a place for the quotidian in literature as well. Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, for example, focus on the very minutiae of life. In scenarios that could seem mundane she finds something transcendent or beautiful.

It was very important to include daily experiences in this book, partly as a counter to the glamorisation, the sensationalisation of trans lives. I wanted to show being trans within an everyday context, within boring jobs. And your life, a lot of the time, is governed by the healthcare system. In the UK the NHS is one of the most routine things in our lives. I wanted to situate the book within the navigation of bureaucratic structures, in which certain administrative failures could set you back several months.

One thing I did think of when I was writing the book was Kafka. The Trial, while creating a world that is an utterly alien dystopia, is depressingly familiar and is informed by his background of working in dull office jobs. The German title of the trial is Der Prozess. One of the titles I batted around for this book—apart from the joke titles—was The Process, as a nod to that.

One part I loved was when you were talking about writing as a distant dream and the necessity of first looking after yourself, of brushing your teeth twice a day. I think that resonated throughout your book.

Yes, the book is about the body, primarily, and the body as being where we live before anywhere else. Before you live in the right house, with the right people, in the right city, or the right country you have to live in a body that is right for you. Or is as good as you can get it. That bit you pick out came out of a long period of self-neglect in my teens and twenties, when I was obsessed with writing something that would be as brilliant as the writers I was reading. This vicious cycle emerged where I just wouldn’t, for example, go to the shops and feed myself properly. I didn’t want to take a single moment away from the computer when I was trying to write. Then, of course, it got much harder to write because physically and mentally I wasn’t very healthy. Then it gets to that point in the book you mention, when I have this kind of breakdown in a really shit job I’m desperate to write my way out of. I’ve got no money and I see writing—absurdly—as the way I’m going to make loads of money. It was very unhealthy. I was so obsessed with the mind at the expense of the body, and then had to reconcile those things with each other.

Your first book is B. S. Johnson’s Trawl. Who was B. S. Johnson?

B. S. Johnson is one of my favourite writers. He’s one of the best-known, now, of a circle of writers that you might call neo-modernist, operating in Britain in the 60s and 70s in response to the angry young men in theatre and kitchen-sink realism. They are writers who would still use the banalities of everyday life we’ve been talking about, but in a formally innovative and, I think, interesting way. Over the last ten to fifteen years these writers—Ann Quin, Rayner Heppenstall—have been starting to get a lot more critical attention, but the most has gone to B. S. Johnson.

B. S. Johnson’s literary career was a failure. There’s no two ways about that. He had this dream of transforming the world through writing, which failed. He had this dream of writing almost entirely from life. There’s this famous line in one of his books where he says “telling stories is telling lies.” In his second novel, Albert Angelo, he just breaks off, breaks off from trying to convince the reader that what he’s doing has any sort of unity or reality to it, and just says “fuck all this lying.” It chimes with an essay published by Nathalie Sarraute at about the same time called “The Age of Suspicion,” where she says that we’ve got to the point where creating great characters—like Dickens or Tolstoy—is no longer possible, and that readers don’t believe characters are anything other than aspects of the author’s consciousness. People like Johnson or Heppenstall embrace that.

Trawl fascinates me as someone who has written a lot about one particular facet of my life. Johnson really believed you should write from life, from experience. But even by the time of Trawl, which I think is his third novel, he’s already running out of material. He’s not that old, he’s in his early thirties. He has this idea that he wants to write a novel that intertwines a stream of consciousness where the narrator is digging up memories with a quite crude metaphor for it, which is he’s on a fishing trawler and it hauls up fish. It’s a lot better than that makes it sound. It’s a really beautiful book, probably his best novel.

I became fascinated by the ethics of contriving an experience in order to write about it. Does that make it genuine or not? In Jonathan Coe’s book about Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant (one of the best biographies I’ve ever read), he quotes a letter Johnson writes to someone saying “I want to go on a trawler, can you sort this out for me?” He says up front “I’m a writer,” and what he’s published and says it’s to write a novel. He was known as the pleasure tripper on the trawler because he didn’t help out in any practical way.

“The body is where we live before we live anywhere else.”

When I started doing the Guardian series, my life got tied up with my writing in a really problematic way. There was this flash of thought: “Do I put myself in harm’s way so I get more emblematic experiences of transphobia to write about and improve my copy?” Of course, in the book I say very quickly that I realise that’s awful. I talk about Mike Penner/Christine Daniels, the LA Times blogger who started a transition blog, de-transitioned and committed suicide, and the blog was taken down. That made me see that I had to be a lot more careful about what I was doing. So I went back to Trawl at that point and found the dynamics behind its writing fascinating all over again.

As you’ve mentioned, Johnson said “I choose to write truth in the form of a novel.” Can a novel and truth be compatible in the way he’s describing?

Yes. This leads me on to my second book, Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, which is subtitled ‘A Novel.’ But that’s partly to signify something it both is and isn’t. I did a similar thing with the memoir, its title is Trans: A Memoir, to say this is simultaneously a memoir and not really a memoir. It does use the memoir form and it is at its core a memoir, but it also tries to subvert that and blur the boundaries of the genre. There are some interviews where Feinberg takes some distance from the text and says, “No, this is a novel, the protagonist Jess Goldberg is Jewish and grew up in the same part of the US as me, and had some of the same jobs and stuff, but actually it’s fiction.” But then Jay Prosser in the book Second Skins, highlights another Feinberg interview where Feinberg says, “This is a very thinly veiled autobiography.”

Around the same time I was reading Johnson I started to read people like Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw. She has a really interesting approach to these divisions between theory and memoir and included a lot of autobiographical detail in a political text that was structured differently to the conventional transsexual memoir, which would reach a climax and closure in surgery. I tried to avoid that in my book.

Feinberg includes some of the conventions of those memoirs in Stone Butch Blues: hormones, some surgery, interaction with the medical establishment. But it avoids the closure of saying, “OK, I’ve resolved this ‘conundrum’.” I think Kate Bornstein talked to Five Books before about how traumatic Feinberg’s novel is. It illustrates a lot of problems of cross-gender, or gender-variant, living at the time. I also like the fact it takes place in a queer context.

Prosser picks up on “Feinberg’s sustained ambivalence between genres.” It’s not quite autofiction, as it doesn’t use Feinberg’s own name, and it doesn’t specifically set out to blur the boundaries between Feinberg’s own life and fiction. But, nonetheless, it does end up doing that. Feinberg said later that the reason Stone Butch Blues is written as a novel, and titled thus, is because autobiography would pull back—fiction would allow a greater amount of truthfulness, even if it wasn’t so factual. Feinberg’s differentiation between truth and facts is a very useful one.

In the Epilogue of my book, I talk about the dialogue and I say that in lots of places I can remember dialogue, or I have it in journals, so I use real dialogue where I can. But where I couldn’t, I just try and make the dialogue truthful rather than factual, because there’s no way I can remember exactly what I said to my friend on a bus in Manchester in 2003. A related point is that I didn’t really want to write this text as a novel, but I did want to write it as autofiction. A part of me wanted to write a text with a central character called Juliet Jacques, which had some experiences that were mine and some that weren’t. But you can’t really do that when you’re dealing with prejudice: with institutionalised transphobia, social transphobia. It would have been utterly appropriative and I think just morally wrong to do that, so this book not only had to be truthful, but it had to stick to the facts of my life as much as it possibly could.

You’ve talked about how difficult this book is to read, there’s a lot of violence and it’s harrowing because we associate—as readers—our bodies with the body of the narrator that is being violated and beaten. How do you understand the relationship between the written and the lived body?

That’s a really interesting question. The task of writing about the physical body, whether you fictionalise it or do it autobiographically, is incredibly difficult. I was talking to a friend about B. S. Johnson, and this friend said one of the things he liked most about Johnson is he’s better at describing physical pain than anyone else he’d ever read. I think that’s true. There are bits in my book where I’m trying to describe pretty intense physical pain that’s come off the back of the surgery and I don’t know how well I did it.

I wonder if moments of violence are easier to describe because when we try to describe physical pain we often think about it metaphorically in terms of something attacking our body?

And, obviously, it’s impossible to remember physical pain. You can remember that you felt pain, but you can’t remember the pain itself. Your mind doesn’t let you do that. With the surgery, by the time it came round, I knew I’d be writing about it, so I was taking notes at the time (maybe quite cynically). In lots of ways it is easier to describe pain inflicted from the outside because you can describe the emotion you feel, the motives you read in the other person in a way that’s a lot easier to convey. A pain that’s coming purely from within you is a lot harder to explain to yourself or anyone else.

Yes, and especially as violence is about power, so you’re thinking about how you would feel in that situation.

Absolutely, in that power structure.

I wanted to move on to Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick.

Let’s do it.

Tell me about Chris Kraus and how she approaches writing about her life.

I find Chris Kraus fascinating. Her work is this really interesting combination of fictionalised (or maybe not fictionalised) memoir, theory and criticism. Books like I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia jump from correspondence with people to vivid BDSM sex scenes, to discussions of post-modern and contemporary art, to reflections about how women are culturally positioned.

I Love Dick has a great line about being accused of abasing herself for writing about the conditions of her own abasement, as a female writer. Obviously these books reflect on their own narrative structure, highlighting their own purpose and the possibility of succeeding in the aims they’ve set for themselves. That, more that anything else, is what I took for the memoir—trying to make my own book do that. I Love Dick was published in 1997, it’s just been reissued in the UK by Serpent’s Tail. The book jumps between styles and perspectives, but a lot of the book is Kraus writing to Dick Hebdige, the cultural critic and writer of Subculture—who I studied at university. With the knowledge of her husband, she pursues this infatuation with Hebdige, who almost never writes back. He’s almost entirely absent in the book. Just occasionally he writes back to say, “Look, I don’t know why you’re doing this, but can you please stop?” She doesn’t.

There’s this really interesting sense of transgression, both in the way she’s pursuing this interest, and then writing about it, and then publishing it as a novel—but not really a novel. There are so many ethical lines being crossed here. It reminds me of some of Sophie Calle’s projects—tracking down people from an address book she found.

But I think any memoir has to cross the sorts of lines that Kraus crosses. It’s impossible to write a memoir without writing about other people who haven’t necessarily wanted you to write about them, or asked to be involved; people who are not in the literary world. I had lots of issues in the memoir with writing about my parents, and how to handle that, and writing about certain friends: some of whom I’m still friends with, some of whom not. With every person I wrote about, I had to sit and think, “Why am I writing about this person? How am I going to write? What is fair? Or, what do I think is fair, because they will probably disagree. Are they a public figure or not?” All these complicated issues were at play.

“It’s impossible to write a memoir without writing about other people, who haven’t necessarily wanted you to write about them.”

The other novel I find intriguing in that respect is The Damned United, by David Peace: the novel about Brian Clough managing Leeds United. Just as the critical responses to I Love Dick really weighed in on the ethics of Kraus using Hebdige in the book in this way, the critical responses to Peace’s novel—or the popular responses—looked at the ethics of using Clough as the central character, of trying to get inside Clough’s head and understand his motives in going to Leeds United when for the last ten years all he’d talked about is how much he hates them and hates the players. Taking a true story, and a lot of historical details, but inventing bits that are fictional. It’s up to the reader to ascertain which bits are fiction and which aren’t.

Clough’s family were very angry about the way Peace used him. A lot of the Leeds footballers characterised in the book were still alive. Much as I respect a writer’s or artist’s prerogative to use material I thought, “I don’t know if this is fair.” Johnny Giles was not a literary theorist, he doesn’t necessarily agree with Peace that his life and his thoughts and actions and motivations are fair game to throw in a book with a bunch of stuff that may or may not be true.

Kraus and Peace throw up a lot of interesting issues. The Kraus book is incredibly confrontational, I love that about it. When I was reading it I was still working at the NHS, not long before they made me redundant, and I went out for a walk over lunch time and I left it at my desk. I came back to see my line manager holding up a book with the huge words ‘I Love Dick’ written across it and saying, “Juliet, what’s this?” Luckily, she found it funny, but I then had to explain what I Love Dick was, and who Dick was, and it was one of the more awkward conversations I’ve had about literature…

Shall we move on to your fourth book, which is Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?

Sheila was very influenced by Chris Kraus as well. Much like I Love Dick, this is a book that consciously blends fact and fiction. Just as the protagonist of I Love Dick is called Chris Kraus, the protagonist here is called Sheila Heti. It’s her second novel, she uses real-life friends and their works and her own work. A lot of the book centres around her trying to write a play that she promised to do years ago, and just can’t finish. She’s solving this dilemma through displacing the creative impulse. The way this book happened is quite interesting. She had some other projects she was doing which came from just having certain friends, who are in the book—Margaux Williamson, Misha Glouberman—who were people she wanted to somehow document. Fictionalising them didn’t really feel quite right, so she tried different ways of incorporating them into a project. Partly she thought, “Why do I need to put them into a work of art at all? Why isn’t it enough to just know them?” But she wanted to create something that included them, and so she created How Should a Person Be? initially out of just recording their conversations.

I like the way it thinks about the uses of art as well. There’s a brilliant plot line that revolves around an Ugly Painting competition they all decide to have, which resolves at the end. It helps Sheila and some of the others think through some issues they’re having: “What are we doing? Why are we doing it?” It borrows techniques from some surprising places. In one interview, Sheila talks about being really interested in the structure of reality shows, like The Hills. I also like the amount of boredom it brings in, and some people think those sections of the book are boring, I don’t.

I think we’ve talked about how different life is to the novel and the page, but I was also wondering how different writing is from living life. How, when you’re writing about life and you’re trying to keep it truthful, do you square that circle?

Well, you can’t, and I’m not sure you’d even want to. Going back to B. S. Johnson, he was obsessed with Joyce and particularly Ulysses. Obviously, Ulysses is the attempt to capture the reality of a single day in someone’s life, bordering on a thousand pages, and doesn’t come close to capturing that reality. There’s a note, I think in one of Johnson’s diaries, where he writes, “It’s a whole day and Bloom only goes to the toilet once, how is that realism?” But even I wouldn’t want to read a novel where a bloke just repeatedly goes to the toilet, because it would be really boring, no matter how well you wrote it, it would be dull. You do have to edit reality.

Another thing I got obsessed with as I got more into keeping journals over the last few years is the way that writing about life changes your life. When I did the Guardian series it was something I tried not to bring in, but it was my break into mainstream writing. For the first year or so I was still doing the same NHS admin job, hanging around with the same group of friends, but I gradually started to get drawn more and more into writing circles. There’s that line in the book, which people keep picking out, which is, “If you articulate an outsider critique well enough you stop being one.” I got long-listed for the Orwell prize, and started being invited to all these things in London—which was exciting. So then I moved to London and had some temporary jobs—and signed on between them—but gradually my life was changing. If you write about your life well enough, it’s difficult not to become “a writer.”

Once I became aware of that, the way I solved it in the Guardian series was to only write about my engagements with the medical system. So it appeared once every few months when I had an appointment. Then I wrote about the physical recovery. Once the Guardian series gets commissioned the book becomes increasingly meta-textual, to the point where it had to end with the interview in the Epilogue with Sheila Heti, where we’re just unpicking all the memoir’s tropes, the effect the writing had on my own life, all that kind of stuff.

Let’s move on to your last book I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

I’ve very pointedly, in my notes for this interview, written “Zlatan Ibrahimovic with David Lagercrantz.” Lagercrantz has been writing the follow-ups to those Stieg Larsson thrillers since Larsson’s death. I find that interesting in itself: an author taking up someone else’s project. Lagercrantz has also ghost-written this autobiography of the Swedish international footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Ibrahimovic is one of the greatest players in the world. He won the league title, I think, eight years in a row with different teams in different countries: Holland, Italy, Spain, France. There are two schools of thought on Ibrahimovic, one is that he’s this overrated, insufferable egomaniac, who endlessly goes missing in big games, and isn’t a team player. I get that. Then there’s another school of thought that says he’s this avant-garde genius, who does things with a football that no-one else would even think of, he’s an artist. I’m in the second camp. Him and Zinedine Zidane—the subject of that great film by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, again portraying him as this brooding outsider in a way people who play team sports aren’t supposed to be—I love them both.

I have a guilty pleasure for football memoirs. There are a few that are written about those sorts of journeyman careers that are done really well, they display a lot of insight into the trials, tribulations, even humiliations of being a mid-rank, jobbing footballer. Actually I find the ones that lack that self-awareness much more entertaining. The Ibrahimovic one documents a great player but also it’s the best football memoir I’ve read. It’s forthright, it’s full of assertive opinions on key personalities, and it’s also hilarious. There’s a brilliant bit after he started at Malmö as a teenager and has moved to Ajax in Holland, but he’s not getting picked. So he goes to his agent, who he already thinks is useless, and says, “Can you get me a move to a club where I’m going to play?” Nothing happens for about a month, so he goes back and says, “Did you do anything?” And the agent says, “Yes, Southampton are interested.” And Ibrahimovic’s response is to say, “Southampton? Fucking Southampton?” and fires him. And there’s a bit about six years later when he’s just won another league title and says, “This is much better than that time I nearly had to join Southampton.”

“You do have to edit reality.”

The opening of the book is magnificent. He’s just become the most expensive footballer in the world, Barcelona—the champions of Europe—have just paid 45 million Euros for him, and given his old club Samuel Eto’o, a truly brilliant striker. The deal is worth about 80 million Euros. The opening paragraph starts with him driving up to The Nou Camp, Barcelona’s stadium, in this new car. He explains how he grew up in the slums in Malmö, the son of Yugoslav immigrants and the way to get ahead was to have the best car, the best watch, the best girlfriend, all the finest and flashiest things. As a reward for winning the title with Juventus, they bought him this Ferrari Enzo—there were only 80 ever made. So you’ve got this famously individualistic egomaniac joining a Barcelona team who are famous—even as they have several of the best players in the world—for not really having stars. This is a team that’s built very much on a collective way of playing. So, he drives up to the stadium and there’s a row of cars outside. He’s going to park and Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona manager, comes outside and says, “Zlatan, this isn’t that kind of club, even Xavi, Iniesta and Messi [the three best players] all drive the Audis the club gave to them.” So that paragraph concludes with the words, “Zlatan was no longer Zlatan.” Which is magnificent.

Then this summer, at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, David Lagercrantz was talking about this book. He said he met Ibrahimovic and talked to him, and wasn’t really taken with the material he got. Saying that he wanted to find the literary Zlatan, he took what he thought was his general personality and ethos and translated it into these brilliant quotes. When he gave it to Ibrahimovic, he just said, “What the fuck is this? I never said that.” And Lagercrantz explained to him what he was trying to do and in the end Ibrahimovic agreed, and loved it, and Lagercrantz says that Zlatan now thinks it’s his story.

The thing with Ibrahimovic is he’s so ludicrous and larger-than-life anyway that it sort of doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. I found that really fascinating. The scandal isn’t like James Frey’s Million Little Pieces, that drugs and incarceration memoir that the Smoking Gun website looked at and concluded that lots was fabricated, as Frey later admitted to a very angry Oprah Winfrey. It doesn’t feel the same because there are different contracts between the reader and the writer, and between the reader and the ghost writer. I don’t know what the nature of those contracts are, but if the subject and ghost writer both agree on the text, then is it acceptable? It raises an interesting ethical question.

Often when people read novels, they try and find out who the people in the novel were in real life. And it’s recently been argued that the novel as a form is dead anyway. I wonder why you think people crave real life in books?

I don’t know, because they’re supposed to be a distraction, right? I think it goes back to what Nathalie Sarraute was saying, that people just don’t believe it anymore. It’s not just that they crave real life, but the demystification of the twentieth century has worked too well, and now the purely fictional narratives have been unmasked. I’m not sure they can ever recover. In the same way the charts feel completely meaningless in the wake of X-Factor and all that stuff that just makes the levels of manipulation so overt. Simon Reynolds writes about this in his book about post-punk. He says the trouble with demystification is there’s nowhere to go afterwards. And he’s right. So maybe the only places for the novel to be now are where autofiction is taking it.

Interview by Beatrice Wilford

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