Why I Chose to Write a Novel Instead of Memoir

Viktor James

How Much of Teaching Frankenstein Is True?

One common question I hear about the novel is, “How much of this is really real?” With more teachers than ever leaving the profession, it’s important to know how much of this story is fact and how much is fiction.

“As with all tales retold, imagination fills the gaps,” — Narrator

It’s a question I knew I would hear when I set off to publish the novel. And choosing to stick to a memoir or to make the story into a novel was perhaps my hardest decision.

I still question it sometimes.

The book has changed a lot since when I first started. In the beginning, it was basically a 144,000-word long memoir. (It’s 86,000 words now).

“What do you mean, I need to make edits? Oh.”

But there were few problems with that.

Aside from the exceptionally long length, I was worried about my students. The original version of the story went into a lot of detail with the problems they faced on a daily basis. The stories teachers hear each day are…intense.

One of my greatest fears was that a kid would read the book and feel exposed. I needed to find a way to be authentic, but to protect the kids. I knew that for the story to resonate, it needed to be real, but not too real.

Unsurprisingly, I found the answer in a book.

I used to teach the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Alexie based the piece heavily on his life, but enough of it was still fiction. That gave him the freedom to tell the story in a way that was universal, allowing it to resonate more.

I knew that for Teaching Frankensteinto be effective, it needed to feel like it could happen to anyone.

When I revised the book, I decided (after much back and forth) to let the novel grow into a piece of fiction. A piece of fiction heavily based on truth.

So, What’s Real and What’s Fake?

Answering that question isn’t easy.

“I believe I put the answers you’re looking for somewhere around here. I think.”

Did Your Students Really Talk Like That?

If you’ve never been a teacher, then some of the story may have surprised you. But the things that kids say can make your brain implode and your spine shiver. I’m not one to censor but had I wrote a novel that captured my students’ actual daily dialogues, it would weight 10 pounds more from profanity.

The kids’ conversations, in general, are accurate. However, they were patched together from copious amounts of notes (I kept a running journal on my school computer for 3 years). Much of what is said in the novel was said, just differently.

Did two students really get suspended for threatening to gut a pregnant substitute teacher?


Did a student try to hook you up with her mom?


Did someone think buffalo wings were made from buffaloes?

Imagine how much ranch you would need.

You never stop teaching…

A student once asked me if William Shakespeare was coming to speak to the class.

Was Your Classroom Really in Such Poor Condition?

Yup. Brown stains on the ceiling tiles. Bookcases held together with blue painter tap. Mismatched desks. Everything. (You can even see pictures in this post). Keep in mind, this was 2013, and the district I had worked for was on like a permanent budget freeze.

There was a $500 yearly budget, though (Yay! Optimism!). And I began the year with a stack of dictionaries and 23ish worn-out copies of Esperanza Rising.

Did You Really Have a Hole in Your Shoe?

Yup. My first year left me beyond broke. And it took a few years to dig my way out of all that credit card debt. At one point, I learned that if you lay out your clothes underneath a sleeping bag, it makes a hardwood floor much more comfortable to sleep on when you don’t own a bed.

And yes, for the 4 years I taught, I waited tables for all but 6 months of it.

Look! Summers off.

Did the “Districtwide Circle Jerk” Really Happen?

Every year. You’d be surprised at some of the “fun activities” teachers are forced to experience.

Is Wilson Really Real?

A mentor makes the difference. I was lucky to have found someone at that school to guide me. (However, the real-life version never bought me a chair. I bought my own. He did buy a classroom set of books for my kids though).

Were You Really Non-Renewed Your First Year?

That’s all true.

Was There Really a Love Interest?

There was a girl. She was and is incredible. No, I never had the self-confidence to ask her out. I’m pretty shy about that kind of thing. That and being a second-year teacher moonlighting as a server meant that I had zero free time.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Does Nemesis Really Exist?

Nemesis isn’t a single person, but an infusion of several troubled kids. Every teacher has a nemesis. Every single teacher.

Nemesis. A fitting name.

Is the Narrator Really You?

It started out that way, but he morphed into his own person by the final draft. He’s his own dude, and he has a lot more in common with Frankenstein’s monster than me. In some ways, he was a lot more understanding than I was and in other ways, a lot more cynical. Truly different.

Fiction Vs. Reality

Each chapter carries a heavy burden of truth, but also enough fiction that prevents it from being a memoir. (If you’re looking for a percentage, it’s somewhere around 80 percent true). But there were deliberate pieces of fiction that serve a purpose to amplify the message of the tale.

Losing the memoir label meant gaining a wider impact.

My goal with Teaching Frankenstein was to capture the authentic voice of teachers. Their lives are insane.

Whether or not you’re a teacher, it doesn’t matter. We all experience these obstacles.

The nameless narrator tells the story of how difficult it is to make a difference and the interference our systems create. Some succeed. Some fail. Either way, if you’re unprepared, reality will knock you on your ass and shatter your expectations.

Peek-a-boo. I see you.

The Problem with Memoirs

Had I wrote Teaching Frankenstein as a memoir, I felt people might dismiss it as an isolated incident: “It’s just what he experienced at that one crazy school! It’s not really like that! Move along. Nothing to see here.”

Hopefully, those who read this book will see this is not an isolated incident.

The experiences in this tale reflect reality for many teachers. The events that proliferate the chapters echo through classrooms across the nation. While this book may be fiction, many teachers live it daily.

So, How Real Is Teaching Frankenstein?

Ask a teacher.

Vikor James is the author of the dark comedy, Teaching Frankenstein: A Cautionary Tale. Copyright © 2018 by Viktor James. All rights reserved.

Check out a chapter here.

(Free on Kindle Unlimited)

Viktor James

Written by

Former high school English teacher. Satirist. Author of Teaching Frankenstein: A Cautionary Tale. MA: English — UCL. http://www.viktorjames.com/

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