I was always a listener. As a child I would sit quietly among grown-ups as they wove narrative yarns of times past. I have vivid memories of Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easters, barbeques (I live in the South after all), and birthdays where family folk gathered around and began, as usual, to reminisce. This was admittedly my favorite part of any get-together, and I suspect it was the favorite of the adults as well.
All that listening has proved invaluable. You see, when I go digging for ideas, I don’t have to look much further than my own family. The files in my brain are stuffed with stories. When I’m developing characters, I draw from accounts of family members who are long gone, many of whom I never knew, but most of whom I feel I did. And so, when I began brainstorming ideas for a middle grade novel, I didn’t head straight to the library or scour the internet (that came later). Nope. I simply sat back and let the family stories resurface.
This is my paternal grandmother, my Nana:
She was my inspiration for Lizzie Hawkins, the strong and determined main character in Every Day After. As Nana once did, Lizzie must overcome the trials of the Great Depression, she must come to terms with the high expectations her father has of her, and she must be a responsible caretaker. Lizzie also prefers to hang out with boys rather than girls, likes being the center of attention, and has no problem telling you what she thinks. There is no doubt that Lizzie is like Nana.
But Lizzie’s life is not Nana’s. As I wrote, Lizzie took over and slowly developed a story of her own. She transformed into a unique person living inside the world of my book. Nana never had to bear the burden of scrounging up enough money to pay the mortgage, or wake up to discover her father had left as Lizzie does. And that’s okay. In writing Every Day After I hoped to pay tribute to the life experiences of my grandmother, but the novel wouldn’t have worked as a retelling of her life verbatim. And after all, I didn’t want to write a biography, I wanted to write a middle grade novel. So I took Nana’s life and I lied about it.
I think author Wally Lamb best expresses what I’m trying to say in this quote taken from Mary Murphy’s documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD:
“You start with who you know and what you know. You take a survey of the lay of the land that formed you and shaped you, and then you begin to lie about it. You tell one lie that turns into a different lie, and after a while those models sort of lift off and become their own people rather than the people you originally thought of. And when you weave an entire network of lies, what you’re really doing, if you’re aiming to write literary fiction, is by telling lies, you’re trying to arrive at a deeper truth.”
I love that. And I believe it. By giving myself permission to lie, by freeing myself from the obligation to get every detail of Nana’s life exact, I have uncovered a more meaningful truth. Isn’t that any author’s goal when they sit down in front of the keyboard to write—to develop characters and a story possessing depth and significance? To create a story with value?
In writing Every Day After, I found that the ideas and inspirations that set one’s story on a course toward existence are simply the beginning. You don’t stop there. You press onward. You ask hard questions; you force yourself to search beyond what you know; you teach yourself to cull from life the things your story needs to reach its highest potential. And then you leave everything else behind. Ideas and inspirations are merely sparks. The lies you tell are the fuel you need to make fire. A writer should always listen…then lie.
My Nana is gone now, but a part of her lives on in a fictional twelve-year-old named Lizzie Hawkins. That makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. About a year before she passed away a family member asked Nana why she had no interest in taking part in something-or-other. I honestly don’t recall what the something-or-other was, but I do recall her reply: “I’ve lived my life,” she said. “My story has already been written.”
And so it has. Twice. Once in life, once in a book—both in different ways true.
Laura Golden is the author of EVERY DAY AFTER, a middle grade novel about a young girl learning to let go and find her own way amidst the trials of the Great Depression. It is set to release from Delacorte Press/RHCB on June 11, 2013. You can find out more about Laura and EVERY DAY AFTER by visiting her website or following her on Twitter and Facebook. Also, feel free to add EVERY DAY AFTER to your Goodreads reading list.