Non Fiction November Week 4 – Reads Like Fiction #NonFicNov


This week’s topic for Non Fiction November is hosted by Renee over at What’s NonFiction?

non fiction

Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I got a little confused this week and thought the topic was on fiction that takes inspiration from fact. Which it clearly isn’t. But I’d written the post so I figured I’d post anyway as anyone who has read my blog for any length of time will know that I am a BIG fan of fictionalised works of real life events.

My fascination with the genre is in the melding of straight, factual journalism and the imagination of the author. Like a journalist, these stories have the facts; the who, where and what and show us the surface of the story. But a fictionalised telling has the luxury of time and of research and can take the reader beyond the facts, developing characters, creating consciousness and positing theories. Non-fiction becomes novel. Tom Wolfe in his book The New Journalism said

It was in the nature of a discovery. This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would…read like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to those greats, the novelists, of course.

The easy assumption would be that In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, arguably the most famous of this style of writing, was the gateway to my interest, but the first book I read in this genre was The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which he classed as ‘A True Life Novel’.

As part of Non Fiction November, here is a list of some of my favourite ‘true life novels’ – a few of which would probably make my Top Ten books of all time.

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

At this point you all know my feelings about Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates fictional retelling of the life of Marilyn Monroe, so I thought I would include another of her books based in fact – Black Water. Black Water tells the story of the infamous Chappaquiddick incident where Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a single-car accident that led to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. In this powerful novella, Kopechne becomes Kelly, a young, idealistic woman who falls for the Senator. Told from her point of view, Black Water is a blistering examination of the imbalance of power and abuses that can lead to.

Libra by Don DeLillo

DeLillo often brings factual events and people into his work, particularly in the epic Underworld but for me, Libra is his masterpiece. Following the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, from troubled adolescent to agent of history, Libra is a gripping blend of fact and fiction exploring the dark events of 1960s America and the fractured personality that opened a wound in the American psyche.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I’m not a massive fan of historical fiction, but Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall is a dazzling recreation of the life of Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIIs right-hand-man and fixer. Lambasted by historian David Starkey as ‘a deliberate perversion of fact’, Mantel insisted that her telling is a subjective one, as is any historians. Regardless of the novel’s authenticity, this is a page-turning wonder of a book, bringing a fresh urgency to the lives of the Tudor monarchs.

Resurrection Men by Eoin McNamee

Eoin McNamee received death threats following the publication of Resurrection Men and it is hard to believe that it is 20 years since his fictional retelling of the crimes of the Shankill Butchers in Northern Ireland caused such a stir. Resurrection Men centres around the fictional Victor Kelly (based loosly on killer Lenny Murphy), a violent and ruthless killer, picking his Catholic targets from the street at random and creating a terror and a mythology in the streets of Belfast. McNamee’s novel is cinematic in scope and beautifully written despite the brutal subject matter.


The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer

The book that started my love of this genre, you can read a more detailed post about why I admire Norman Mailer’s fictionalised account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who was executed in 1977 in Utah for committing two murders.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites was the first book I ever reviewed on this blog, so it is a fitting inclusion in this list. Set in 1830 the novel explores the final year in the life of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir.  In 1829, three people in a remote farmstead are convicted of the murder of their employer, beaten and stabbed to death. Murder, remote communities and isolated landscapes are fertile material for a novel which, as Hannah Kent explains in her author’s note, aims ‘to supply a more ambiguous portrayal’ of Agnes, for whom the author clearly has deep and sympathetic knowledge. Kent mines the final months of Agnes’ existence from historical records and creates a swirling, claustrophobic and dark tale that resurrects her heroine with skill and poignancy.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

Set in 1960s suburban New York, Little Deaths re-tells the horrifying true story of Ruth Malone, a woman accused of killing her two children. Flint cleverly evokes an era and a neighborhood where to be different or to be worthy of attention was seen as a failing. The book mixes sex, murder, obsession and a femme fatale – all the right ingredients for a noir drenched tale. This is true crime with a distinctly modern feminist slant which leaves the question of whether or not Ruth Malone was guilty tantalizingly open.


Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn

In Gordon Burn’s audacious debut novel, he takes Britain’s biggest selling vocalist of the 1950s and turns her story into an exploration of celebrity and murder. Mixing fictional characters with real life stars such as John Lennon and Doris Day, Burn imagines a life for Alma Cogan if she had lived past her death in 1966 and on into obscurity. Alongside Alma’s life is the search for the body of Keith Bennett, victim of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and Burn adeptly explores the dark underside of fame and the public’s voracious need to know everything about anyone in the public eye.

The Damned United by David Peace

Anyone who knows me will know I’m not a football fan, but I this fictionalised account of the 44 days that football legend Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United contains all the tragedy, farce, humour and drama that you could want from any novel. The football becomes almost irrelevant as Peace takes the reader inside the mind of Clough – a task that Peace claimed was ‘more honest than most biographers’.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41 …

Lizzie Borden has entered into American mythology due to her involvement in the murders of her father and step mother over 100 years ago, for which she was arrested, tried and acquitted. The fact that the murderer was never found has meant that a trace of blame has always lingered over Borden and has created an aura of fascination around the case ever since. Schmidt is excellent at depicting the simmering family resentments within the Borden household without going into too much detailed back story.

Like Joyce Carol Oates in Blonde, Sarah Schmidt has decided on the facts of the case and written the book to that effect – a choice that is satisfying for a reader, but loses some ambiguity that exists within the legend of Lizzie Borden.

Honourable Mentions:

Underworld by Don DeLillo on too many people and events to mention!

My Sister My Love by Joyce Carol Oates on Jon Benet Ramsay

Calf by Andrea Kleine on John Hinkley and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

Room by Emma Donoghue which is loosely based on the Josef Fritzl kidnapping case

Is this a genre you like? And if so, have you read any of these?

The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

25 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Now I want to read all of these but tell me, can you give me a few more years of life and good eye-sight? My list of ‘essential reading’ gets longer and each time I read your blog and add a few more titles to said list, I have this sense of time running out on me. I suppose the best thing is to decide to not add any more titles (I’ve already gone through the list and deleted about 20% of them) as what I can’t do is not read your blog. It’s always a great read and you’ve introduced me to authors I’ve never heard of and books that never crossed my radar. Thanks for that.


  2. Intriguing list! I hadn’t known Joyce Carol Oates has published several books of this kind, but I’d like to check them out. She’s such an expert at building suspense and character, and it’d be interesting to see how she creates fiction out of fact.


  3. Some great looking books there – too tempting! Thank goodness I’ve read a few already – Burial Rites – brilliant, See What I have Done – awful!, Wolf Hall – brilliant, and I’ve seen the film of The Damned United, so that sorta counts, eh? I’ve got In Cold Blood coming up soon, so good to see it makes your list. 😀


  4. Lol, I’m starting to think you want to get into the minds of folks who are part of a murder story in real life!
    Chappaquiddick was a movie released in the States….thus year, I think? Too specific and not a great PR campaign.
    In December I’m reading a fictionalized memoir of an anthropologist’s time in Africa. You may like it!


  5. Such a thoughtful post and list, Cathy! I’m glad you came up with so many interesting titles for this. I read Black Water years ago (I went through a Joyce Carol Oates obsessive phase for a long time!) and really liked it but I had no idea she’d written a fictionalized account of JonBenet Ramsey, interesting.


    • The Jon Benet Ramsay story is well done but she comes to a very definite idea of what happened which I was a little uncomfortable with. It’s interesting how these fictions often spring from the gaps in factual stories – like they are an attempt to answer the unanswerable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I’m so curious what she thought happened. That story is just such a bizarre one! There was a little docuseries that came out a couple years ago that I thought presented a pretty convincing explanation of what might’ve happened, at least the most logical one I’ve heard so far. And that’s true, I think we really need complete narratives or else we become obsessed with the missing parts. I like that she made something creative out of it though.


  6. I’m really, really keen to read The Executioner’s Song (although I suspect it will be distressing), and Blonde is one of the two JCO books I want to get to (the other is The Accursed).


  7. In the spirit of your reinterpretation of this theme I’d like to mention Eric Ambler’s thriller The Mask of Dimitrios, set in the period before the Second World War when the eastern Mediterranean was in turmoil with Turks and Greeks killing each other and Armenians and Jews getting caught in the crossfire. In amongst the interactions of the fictional characters the author gives a précis of what happened historically in Smyrna and elsewhere in the region, seemlessly blending the action with the context. I shall be disappointed when I get to the end and realise the protagonist is a figment of Ambler’s imagination!


  8. I like your take on this. I’ve not read any of the books you mention. But Burial Rites is on my TBR list. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of a fictionalized real event book I’ve read, and I am coming up blank! I don’t think I normally seek this type of book out.


  9. A superb genre with some fantastic examples – I loved Little Deaths and also Burial Rites and I would also offer up Alias Grace as an entrant into the genre… I must seek out My Sister My Love as this is a story that is fascinating and author I admire


  10. I really liked Burial Rites, rather like His Bloody Project you know the ending but want to change it anyway. And I also enjoyed Wolf Hall and bought the sequel when it came out and for the life of me have no idea why I’ve not felt in the mood to take it off the shelf yet. How things get moved up and down my TBR has no rhyme or reason!


  11. What a wonderful misunderstanding: I just *love* this list. I’ve only read a few but I have a few others on my TBR already too. One that strikes me as odd is Black Water because when I read it I didn’t understand properly that it was based on a real-life event (and, so, I need to keep re-learning that fact, it seems, a couple of decades later – it still seems, to my mind, fiction first). Your comment about how often these works are attempts to answer the unanswerable rings true for me; Reservoir 13 comes to mind of course!


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