Monday, April 9, 2012

Please: Do Not Look for Me in my Writing!

Do authors use their own lives in their novels?

If you ask ten authors this, you’re likely to get ten different answers, but I believe the majority of answers would range from “yes” to “somewhat”.

I would like to enter my own answer as absolutely not.

My debut novel, ME, HIM, THEM AND IT (to be published this winter by Bloomsbury) features a confused, terrified, pregnant sixteen-year-old main character. And I am not kidding when I tell you that the majority of agent who discussed representing me started with a question something like this:

“Was this novel inspired by your life events?”

Or

“Were you yourself a pregnant teen?”

Or even

“So how old were you when you got pregnant?”

WHAT?

(For the record, I have never been a pregnant anything.)

These questions surprised me and struck me over and over again with the truly personal nature of this business. Though I was not a pregnant teenager, I couldn’t help feeling that a question like this crosses the line a bit in a professional conversation.

But, I also cannot blame these agents. And, I am sure I will get this question again from future readers and bloggers and reviewers. It’s a personal business. It’s something I have wondered myself when I’m in the middle of a powerful novel.

So, I’ve been forced to ask myself other questions. Where am I in Evelyn’s story? Why did I write it to begin with?

Evelyn goes to Catholic high school; I went to public. Evelyn is a rebel; I was a complete goody-two-shoes. Evelyn is depressed; I was pretty darn happy. Evelyn is pregnant: I was, well, not.

So, why did I write the book?

Well, ok, I did teach in Catholic schools for many, many years. And yes, I did always fantasize about chucking my goody-two-shoes back in the day. And, although I was a happy teen, I have known loneliness of the Evelyn-extreme. And, though I’ve never been pregnant myself, I have worked closely with some pregnant teenagers.

Still, my own life isn’t in this book right?

Now, I will admit that small anecdotes did wiggle their way into the novel. At one point Evelyn has a chat with her little cousin which mirrors almost verbatim a conversation I had with my big cousin/hero Ali over 25 years ago. And there are a few other similar moments that might look familiar to people who have known me a long time.

But still, my life isn’t in this book.

And of course as the publication date gets closer, I worry that people who know me are going to see these little moments and make huge conclusions. Is Ali (who also was not pregnant in high school--plus, she does not have red frizzy hair, and did not grow up in Florida) going to read that one moment and think the entire character of Evelyn is based off of her?

Are my old students going to think that I was a rebel like this? Are my family members going to think I was insulting them inside my head the way Evelyn does? Are people going to conclude that her visions on life match mine?

There’s nothing I can really do to control this, so let me set the record straight once and for all--MY LIFE IS NOWHERE IN MY WRITING.

And so, why did I write ME, HIM, THEM AND IT? I have no idea.

Although I have to admit...

4 comments:

  1. I feel your pain, Caela, but not in regards to my YA. Nobody expects a book about an alien exchange student to be based on my life. :-) But people will ask how much of the *ahem* spicy scenes from my adult romances are based on my personal experiences. I'm always stunned that people think it's okay to ask me that. One of these days, I'll come up with a witty retort.

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  2. I worry about the same thing, Caela. While I am in my novel, it is not obvious. I am in the main character, her mother, her grandmother, and other characters too. But, like I said, it's not obvious. The parts that people would guess are me or my family are 100% fiction.

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  3. When people ask you questions like that, they just want to feel connected to you and your experience. There IS something in you that led you to write about these characters, something you share with the characters, no matter how foreign they might seem. Find that, and use it to inform you readers that writing is about imagination and empathy and while you may not have ever experienced the exact set of circumstances your characters experience, you have most certainly traversed the same emotional terrain. And hey, it's fun to try on all these personas, to inhabit these lives we create. Good luck!

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  4. An imagination is a terrible thing to waste. It's always more fun escaping into a brand-new life, yes? :)

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