fact vs fiction

What Do Fiction Writers Owe Their IRL Inspiration?

Cat Person and Stillwater constantly betray their main characters. It’s what makes them interesting.

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture. Photos: Courtesy Focus Features; Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by Vulture. Photos: Courtesy Focus Features; Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by Vulture. Photos: Courtesy Focus Features; Getty Images

Contemporary entertainment is a hall of mirrors, an endless flow of simulacra: reality shows, biopics, documentaries, Instagram posts, Youtube vlogs. Podcasts and docuseries and movies process the same real-life events (Tonya Harding, the O.J. trial, Theranos), responding to one another, building on one another, until the metanarrative is part of the entertainment. I guess it is no surprise, then, that our fictionalized characters have starting launching protests about how we’ve used them. A woman named Alexis Nowicki recently wrote a Slate essay outing herself as the inspiration for the viral short story “Cat Person,” and Amanda Knox, who was falsely accused of murder by Italian authorities, wrote an Atlantic article about a movie that (very) loosely transposes her story. Tom McCarthy, the director of Stillwater, did acknowledge in a Vanity Fair interview that his movie was “directly inspired” by Knox’s case. I still can’t decide if this was all marketing — McCarthy trying to stir up the true-crime audience and situate his film amid the flow of Amanda Knox content — or naiveté, an artist assuming that people will understand that inspiration is about the spark of an idea, not the act of appropriation.

It must first be noted that Stillwater bears little resemblance to Knox’s nightmarish story. She was a 20-year-old American exchange student in Italy when her roommate, a British student named Meredith Kercher, was gruesomely murdered. The police immediately focused on Amanda and her Italian boyfriend, despite virtually no evidence pointing to them. Another man was eventually arrested and convicted of the crime, but Knox was still churned through the Italian legal system for eight years. She was definitively cleared of murder charges in 2015, but not before she spent four years in an Italian prison, where she was sexually harassed and subject to psychological abuse. Her diary was stolen and pored over by the rabid press, which portrayed her as a nymphomaniac femme fatale who had convinced two men to murder Kercher as part of a demented sex game.

Stillwater takes place not in Italy but in France, and the American exchange student, Allison Baker (played by Abigail Breslin), is not from a nice, working-class family in Seattle, like Knox, but a poor and chaotic home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she was raised by her grandmother because her father was a drug addict and her mother died by suicide. Allison is convicted of murdering her ex-girlfriend, a French Muslim girl, but insists that a mysterious man named Hakim committed the crime. The film takes place five years after her conviction, as her father, Bill (played by Matt Damon), who has cleaned up and is trying, belatedly and disastrously, to be in his daughter’s life, takes on the task of tracking down Hakim.

Knox was understandably angry that McCarthy used her case as shorthand to sell a movie that has little to do with her. She wrote a series of tweets that she spun into an essay for The Atlantic, venting her frustration at the way her name is used without her consent: the “Amanda Knox saga” or, worse, “the sordid Amanda Knox saga.” “I never asked to become a public person,” Knox writes, but she acknowledges, “My name, my face, my story have effectively entered the public imagination. I am legally considered a public figure, and that leaves me little recourse to combat depictions of me that are harmful and untrue.” After years of Italian authorities and the tabloid media creating fanciful and grotesque stories about her, Knox is weary of being made a subject of fiction.

Knox’s public vendetta against Stillwater may also be a matter of practical survival. As a best-selling author and true-crime podcaster, she is eager to maintain her hold on her story for both her dignity and her brand, which is her only source of income. The Vanity Fair article in which McCarthy discusses Stillwater ends, for some reason, with a rundown of the personal and legal debts that Knox and her family incurred during her trials, which reportedly ate up all of her nearly $4 million book deal. In a vast and lucrative true-crime media landscape on podcasts and streaming TV, big cases may appear like proprietary brands, but they are in fact public property. The “Amanda Knox case” does not belong to Amanda Knox, which seems to be the major source of her frustration: that she has neither the sole right to tell her story nor the exclusive right to profit off of it.

There is a difference, though, between fiction and fictionalization. McCarthy and his co-writers were not interested in Knox’s version of the narrative, the prodigious bungling of her case by Italian police and prosecutors, nor the man-eater fantasia Italian authorities came up with. They seem driven instead by the allegorical power of an American abroad, a figure of both innocence and destruction that has fascinated writers from Henry James to Patricia Highsmith. In Stillwater, the innocent is not Allison but Bill, who is, it seems, the most American figure McCarthy could think of: an Oklahoma roughneck who works on oil rigs, wears Wrangler jeans and Orvis button-ups, eats at Subway while in Marseilles, and answers every French question in English. After tracking down Hakim, kidnapping him, and beating him — a decision that destroys his budding relationship with a French woman and her adorable daughter — Bill succeeds in matching the DNA on the murder weapon to Hakim, and Allison is released to go back to the U.S. Once there, she confesses what Bill has already suspected: She actually was involved with the murder, asking Hakim to get rid of her ex, even if she thought she was just asking him to get her out of the apartment they shared.

Allison’s guilt in Stillwater is clearly part of why Knox has spoken out so loudly against it. I suspect that she is also loath to become the face of white American women falsely accusing men of color, particularly because that is exactly what she did. After hours of interrogation and pressure to confess from Italian police, she confusedly pointed the finger at her boss, a Congolese immigrant, who spent three weeks in jail before he was exonerated. She rescinded her accusation quickly after she made it and has apologized since, but this still makes Knox’s story maddeningly ambiguous when it comes to both discussions about privilege and the notion of “believing women.” Knox was undoubtedly a victim of gendered violence and harassment on the part of the Italian legal system and the tabloids. But as has happened so many times when white women falsely accused Black men of crimes in the U.S., she was believed when she accused her boss, at least for a time, with awful and lasting consequences for his life. Misogynist stereotypes about promiscuous American women are a huge part of why Knox got railroaded by the press and the police, but her ultimate acquittal of the crime may have been at least partially due to Italy’s reluctance to get into an ugly extradition battle with its most powerful ally. She became a cause célèbre for the United States media, which was as convinced of the innocence of this white girl with a face like a Ralph Lauren model as the Italian media was of her guilt.

The ambiguity not in the facts of Knox’s case but in the broader social narratives it came to embody is exactly what makes it a compelling springboard for fiction. McCarthy admitted to Vanity Fair that he “couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to be in Knox’s shoes.” Knox conceded that he had no legal obligation to ask her directly, but suggests he may have had a “moral or ethical” one instead. But any writer can tell you that the spark of curiosity — “I wonder what it is like to be that person” — must often be protected against too much knowledge, lest the writer’s agenda be overtaken by the dictates of fact or an unhelpful loyalty to the people who inspired them. What makes fiction so compelling is the astoundingly bad friends writers are to their characters, a kind of acquired ruthlessness that fiction writers learn to apply to any interesting real-life story or detail they can get their hands on. This betrayal in fiction is in service to bigger ideas, the most universal being that human beings are without exception wounded, self-interested, blind to our flaws, and longing for love.

These betrayals also seem to be the crux of another recent debate about fiction versus nonfiction: the surfacing of what the press has erroneously been calling “the real Cat Person.” Alexis Nowicki wrote in July in Slate that she long had the uncanny sense that the most famous New Yorker story since “The Lottery,” Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” was based on her life, since the main character was from her same small hometown, worked the same job, and dated an older man suspiciously similar to the story’s other main character. Roupenian eventually acknowledged that, after a short relationship with Nowicki’s ex-boyfriend, she had learned about Nowicki on social media and built the story around the surface-level facts she had gleaned there. This news exploded across Twitter with almost the same fervor with which people initially shared “Cat Person,” and many people expressed outrage that Roupenian would appropriate another woman’s story for her work.

Of course, when “Cat Person” was published, many readers interpreted it as Roupenian’s story, referring to it as an essay despite it being written in the third person. Roupenian has said that she received death threats for what male readers perceived was unfair treatment of the character of Robert. This, as it turns out, is Nowicki’s greatest issue with “Cat Person” as well — in the story, Robert is unattractive and insecure, making gross attempts at dirty talk during sex and, after the main character has attempted to ghost him, barraging her with text messages that start out perfectly nice and then descend to the story’s last word: “Whore.” The man the story was based on, whom Nowicki calls Charles, was a kind person and a good boyfriend, and, to make things worse, he died suddenly last year, making “Cat Person” his one questionable brush with fame. In the discussion about appropriation that the essay kicked up, it seems to have been lost that Nowicki’s piece did not only tell her own story. After Charles’s death, their experiences together became Nowicki’s alone, and what might seem to be the most interesting detail of the essay — the truth of whatever interaction Charles may have had with Roupenian — at least partly died with him.

Knox and Nowicki’s situations are obviously vastly different. I tend to sympathize with Knox, who was truly thrust into the public eye by trauma and humiliation, making her tight hold on her own story — and therefore her condemnation of McCarthy — a crucial act of self-protection. But Nowicki is not necessarily condemning Roupenian, whom she acknowledges was an M.F.A. student at the time she submitted the story and never imagined it would be accepted by the New Yorker, much less become the only piece of short fiction ever to go viral. Barring that explanation, Nowicki’s purpose in writing the essay seems unclear. She implies that the New Yorker story gaslit her, making her question her experiences with Charles, wondering whether he really was more toxic, like the character Roupenian created. Other than that interesting revelation, the essay is a sweet but banal tribute to her ex, full of anecdotes (“he burned me CDs,” “we saw The Great Gatsby at the multiplex”) whose only claim to relevance is that they really happened.

This sentimentality could not be further from the merciless precision with which Roupenian depicts her characters. Despite what angry readers may have believed, Roupenian’s allegiance is not straightforwardly with the main character, Margot, at all. Both Margot and Robert are unattractive characters, with Margot naïvely ego-tripping as she has sex with him, imagining his wonder and gratitude as a 30-something man getting to have sex with a beautiful 20-year-old. She lacks empathy for him, seeing him as purely a way to gratify her need for attention, but then rejecting that attention when she gets it. This story is decidedly not about Alexis Nowicki or Charles. (Some of the details that Roupenian supposedly lifted from Nowicki’s life, like the description of Charles and his apartment, will be familiar to anyone who has interacted with men in a college town for any period of time.) “Cat Person” is about the dehumanizing rituals of dating and casual sex, and the ways that the power dynamics between men and women are complicated by the ever-present threat of violence.

Stillwater is similarly not about Amanda Knox, although it does meditate on the razor edge of privilege and vulnerability that white women often seem to embody. As in so many noirs, the characters of Allison, Hakim, and Bill all hang suspended between the roles of perpetrator and victim, pulled around by circumstance even as they are the authors of their own disaster. In showing no allegiances, either to his source material or his characters, McCarthy endeavors to ally himself with something bigger: his ideas. Did he compromise himself in the process? Of course. Roupenian did too, and by necessity. In our relentless hunger for reality, streaming hours of content covering different facets of the same person or event, we start to believe that amid all of the details we might find the Rosetta Stone, the truth of What Really Happened. It is a well-worn cliché that fictional truth may be truer than factual truth, but I think its lesson is something more important for audiences obsessed with certainty: In human life, unambiguous truth is as rare as innocence. Exoneration is for the courts. In fiction, everyone is guilty, and no one is to blame.

What Do Fiction Writers Owe Their IRL Inspiration?