Not at all. The plots are not my life, those characters are not people I know, and none of them is me. My job, as I understand it, is to invent lives that are far more enlightening than my own, invested with special meaning. That’s the whole advantage of fiction over life: you get to control the outcome.
I can’t base fiction on my life, because I don’t build a story on pre-existing conditions. I begin by considering theme, and creating a world in which the right questions will be asked. I populate my setting with characters who will serve my plot. Those characters are my slaves. They must do exactly what I want, or the story falls to pieces. No actual person I know is that cooperative. So I invent people from scratch, starting with what they need to do, and working backwards, inventing life histories that render their actions believable. Sometimes I do include historical figures in my fiction, and that is a tricky mix (see “FAQ’s: The Lacuna.”) These people are more like a setting, their real-life details forming an inflexible grid around which I weave my plot.
Pure invention seems straightforward to me, much easier than trying to jam an already formed personality into a mold it won’t fit. So it surprises me when people insist I must have experienced everything I write. Once a reader (a psychologist) wrote, “Come on now! How can you claim you’re not writing about yourself? Taylor Greer in The Bean Trees moved from Kentucky to Arizona, like you did. Codi Noline in Animal Dreams taught biology (you’ve studied biology). Why do you persist in the infantile need to deny you are writing about yourself?” Yikes. Did I move from Kentucky to Arizona, like Taylor Greer? Yes, but via France. Did someone leave an abandoned child in my car along the way? Uh, no. Does my fiction reflect my world view? Probably, but I have not done a fraction of the things my characters do, such as running from the law, adopting an abused child, being an expert cockfighter, having Alzheimer’s, being a gay man, being a straight man, being the child of a Christian Missionary, cooking for Diego Rivera, and having great sex in an Anasazi ruin. Do I seem that energetic?