When I was a kid, nothing was better than listening to my Aunt Thelma’s stories. She’d take humiliating, awful situations and transform them into eye-popping, comic-tragic tales. Her pain was our gain.
Stories bang around my head and crowd my mind. I’m stuffed with ‘what if’ and ‘why did s/he do that?’ As a child, I made twice-weekly trips to the library. Writers were gods to me, purveyors of that which I needed for sustenance. Food. Shelter. Books. Those were my life’s priorities.
As an adult, I still feel that way. I’m constantly foraging for books that offer glimpses into a character’s psyche, that go deep enough to make me part of the choir, saying, “Oh yeah, me too, tell it, writer. True that, uh huh.”
As a writer, I’ve learned that reaching deep isn’t always comfortable. (My daughters will read this! My husband will think I’m portraying him!) But I push myself to write with a knife held to my own throat, so that my work will hold as much emotional truth as possible.
Of course, there’s a place on my shelf for soothing books. Sometimes I want a comfort read, a total escape, a warm place to rest. But my favorite books, the ones I return to time and again, are those gritty enough to have emotional truth (which is very different than the truth of events).
Do writers of dreadful happenings all come from dysfunctional families? My first book, The Murderer’s Daughters, begins with two sisters who witness their father murder their mother and goes on to explore the myriad ways this event shapes their lives. Did my father kill my mother?
No. But he tried, and my sister and I were there. My sister let him in (after being told ‘don’t open the door for your father’) and somewhere in the background I stood, a silent four-year-old. Did that shape my work? I’m quite certain it did. Even though it is only the first chapter that holds my family DNA, the ongoing emotional tenor and the themes are all ripples from my past: invisibility, abandonment, neglect—much that was drawn on.
The Comfort of Lies tells the story of three women connected by one small child: one gave birth to her, one’s husband fathered her, and one adopted her. The damages of infidelity, what being a mother means, guilt, obsession, and forgiveness are all themes I explore in this book.
Did I give a child up for adoption? No. Did I adopt a child? No. But I struggled with issues of infidelity in ways that allowed The Comfort of Lies to come alive in my mind (and hopefully on paper.) Obsession is no stranger to me—nor is guilt or forgiveness.
Too many marriages are marred by giving in to rage, to explosions of temper. Too many of us know by the sound of the key in the lock, the way our spouse says hello, how our night will be. It feels like we can measure their moods by the very molecules dancing in the air around them. Accidents of Marriage is based on every relationship I’ve ever had and the marriages of every friend I know. Sometimes it’s the husband, sometimes it’s the wife—occasionally it’s both. There is a continuum, from unchecked rage to offloading moods with a huff and a puff, but at sometime in every relationship, a wife, a husband, is forced to bite hard on their tongue when their spouse uses the marriage as a convenient place to dump their anger, disappointment or frustration.
And The Widow of Wall Street?
That novel weaves in each and every time I was lied to.
How does this happen, this weaving of truth and imagination? Does it always happen? One wouldn’t know without x-raying each writer’s past, but it’s a question I wonder about when reading my favorite books. What was that writer tapping into when they brought such depth to the page? Can a wrenching book be written without the writer burrowing into their own hidden fears and hopes?
For me, writing transmogrifies fact into fiction, and thus, soothes my soul.
I used to play a song for my daughters, from Free to Be You and Me, that swore that crying got the sad out of you. That’s kind of what writing does for me—it gets the sad, the mad, and the glad out of me.
Writing calms me. Writing excites me. Writing sorts out my world.
And writing lets me tell stories. Just like Aunt Thelma.