The World inside Their Heads

A novelist wrestles with the idea that fiction is stranger than truth

Cultural appropriation wasn’t an issue in the 1980s when I published my first novel, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World. It told the life story of Anna Swan, a nineteenth-century giantess who exhibited with P.T. Barnum (and who may be a distant relation of mine). Anna grew up in the backwoods of Nova Scotia before Barnum and his agent brought her to New York to exhibit at his American Museum on Broadway.

As part of my research, I visited her relatives in Nova Scotia. The ones I met generously gave me their help. But there were others I did not meet. Not until I gave a reading at a library in Port Hawkesbury.

I was warned by the librarian that some Swan relatives were coming to the reading and they were not happy with my book. I didn’t worry too much about them because I imagined they were old people (I was young then), and so I felt utterly surprised when two young women, younger than...