Wednesday, August 5, 2009
The other day in this spot I was telling you a little story about my son Charlie’s attempts, when young, to find me a boyfriend. (I want to clarify, I was single at the time. And Charlie was nine or ten.)
I told this story in the context of reflecting on my new novel, Labor Day, and the many aspects of a writer’s experiences and obsessions—large and small—that make their way into her work. Whether she likes it or not. Though if you ask me, it’s a wise writer who makes use of those pesky obsessions of hers. And my new novel is jam-packed full of them.
Case in point: The character of Eleanor, in Labor Day. Without giving away anything that would spoil the book for you, I can safely tell you here that Eleanor’s a fourteen –year-old girl our narrator (thirteen-year-old Henry) meets up with at the town library on Labor Day weekend, where—in the pre-Google days of 1987-- he has been sent by his mother to research Prince Edward Island, because she’s thinking maybe she should move there with her lover, the following week.
(O.K. This will make more sense if you read the novel. And of course that’s what I’m trying to inspire you to do here.)
Now, here are some things you will learn about Eleanor, if you read my book. Her parents are divorced. Her mother has packed her off from her home in Chicago (a place where people wear cool clothes and listen to jazz) and sent her to live with her father in a New Hampshire hick town (that’s her concept of the place, anyway) so she (the mother) can have sex with her boyfriend all the time.
Eleanor’s got eating disorders (when she wants to eat, she sucks on her braid instead), and has drawn a line on her wrist that says “cut here”. She has come to the library to research her legal rights, in anticipation of suing her parents for inflicting psychological damage on her. She thinks maybe she and Henry should have sex, to get the whole virginity problem over with. Before much time passes, she’ll be stepping out of her polka dot underpants.
Henry—to his credit—is not so sure this is a good idea.
I will add that Eleanor will play a major role in my novel, in doing some serious damage to the lives of Henry’s mother and the man with whom she has fallen in love.
So where does the idea come from, for a character like this?
Here comes a painful admission: From my own young self.
I am not Eleanor. I wasn’t Eleanor when I was fourteen, either. I didn’t come from Chicago. (I’m a New Hampshire girl, in fact. Live Free or Die.) My parents didn’t get a divorce until I was grown. I didn’t have sex with any boys that year, or for a long time after. I did not contemplate cutting my wrists (though if you saw a picture of me as a teenager you’d understand I know a thing or two about eating disorders.)
But I know this girl, because I possessed some of her least likeable traits, myself, when young. And I will add that as a writer, I believe it is my job to locate compassion for every single character I bring to life on the page. Eleanor included. I’m not interested in books in which there are good guys (or girls) and bad ones. Just human beings, every one of them possessing flaws--longings and regrets, history and sorrows, hunger and obsession. Those things get us into trouble and sometimes—on rare and precious occasions, one of which occurs in my novel—they even get us out of it.
Eleanor is a meddler and a busy-body. As was I. (By the way, this is a trait all writers should possess. If you want to write good fiction, you’d better have inordinate interest in other people’s lives. Which I do. And in fact, if you are such a person, becoming a writer may be one of the best ways of keeping yourself out of trouble. Better to meddle with the lives of fictional characters than real ones.)
When I was fourteen-years-old, I developed a crush on my biology lab partner—a major bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, who had a girlfriend he wanted to break up with, only he couldn’t figure out how, and couldn’t handle giving up the sex. But this girl had nothing interesting to say to him, ever. And Joe (the name I’ll give him) was a smart and funny person who read books and liked talking to me. He may even have had a crush on me, back, actually. Only neither of us knew what to do about this.
So I created an imaginary girl for him. A little like me. A lot like who I wished I was. I told Joe I had this friend who went to a different school, who had seen him at a basketball game and wanted to meet him. Joe was instantly enthralled. I started delivering notes to Joe, written by this friend of mine. He wrote long letters back, pouring out his heart to her.
There was no girl, of course. The one writing the letters was me. Keep in mind here: I’m a writer, and even at fourteen, I could write a good letter.
The story ended badly, of course. Forty years later, I still think about this episode as one of the worst things I ever did.
When I was seventeen, I wrote a short story based on what happened between Joe and me. It won second place in the Seventeen magazine short story competition. That was my first published work of fiction. The following year I went off to Yale, sold an article to The New York Times, and got a book contract.
As for Joe, he married the bad news girlfriend. They had a baby with a heart problem who needed multiple surgeries and eventually died on the operating table. A few years later, driving down Main Street in our town, he hit a pedestrian crossing the street. The man died. I saw Joe only once after that, pumping gas, back in the days before self-service.
I did not say, as I was writing Labor Day, and when I created the character of Eleanor, that I was going to write about this dark and haunting piece of my own story, though I doubt a week goes by I haven’t thought about it.
But whether she’s writing fiction or non-fiction (and I write both), this much is true: a writer cannot avoid channeling the experiences of her life, the moments of deepest and sharpest emotion, good and ill. They crop up all over the place in our work, whether we like it or not.
Some people, talking to me about my novel, say how awful a person Eleanor was, how much they hate her. And of course I understand. But I also understand what made her do what she did. I know every character has her own story, and it is my job to understand each of them. It is my job to explore not only the heroic and beautiful aspects of human nature, but the painful and screwed up ones.
I am Eleanor, in my novel. I am also Henry. Also Adele. I am even Frank, and I am a woman who loves Frank, and a woman who broke Frank’s heart, and one who mended it.
If I tried to be all of these people out in real life, there’d be a name for my psychological disorder, and it would not be a good thing to be. But I go to these places only in my head, and on the pages of my books. So the name for me is a writer.