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Have You Been to Rehab?

Photobucket [1]Therese here. Today’s guest is author Catherine McKenzie [2]. Catherine’s debut, Spin [3], which was an acclaimed novel in Canada, has just been released in the U.S. What’s it about?

Katie Sandford has just gotten an interview at her favourite music magazine, The Line. It’s the chance of a lifetime. So what does she do? Goes out to celebrate — and shows up still drunk at the interview. No surprise, she doesn’t get the job, but the folks at The Line think she might be perfect for another assignment for their sister gossip rag. All Katie has to do is follow It Girl Amber Sheppard into rehab. If she can get the inside scoop (and complete the 30-day program without getting kicked out), they’ll reconsider her for the job at The Line.

Katie takes the job. But things get complicated when real friendships develop, a cute celebrity handler named Henry gets involved, and Katie begins to realize she may be in rehab for a reason. Katie has to make a decision — is publishing the article worth everything she has to lose?

Catherine is not only a talented author, she also spearheaded an effort to shine a spotlight on books she feels didn’t see enough attention, by starting a Facebook group called I bet we can make these books best sellers [4], because in her words, “who says Oprah’s the only one who can get people reading?” I’m so pleased she’s here with us today to talk about writing what you know. Or don’t know.

Have you been to rehab?

When my first novel, Spin, was released in Canada two years ago and I began making the publicity rounds for it, I started getting asked some version of the same question over and over again. Spin is about a journalist who follows a celebrity into rehab, and what everyone wanted to know was: what had inspired this book? Had I, in fact, been to rehab?

I admit that I was shocked the first time I got asked this question. It was at a bookclub. I was the first to arrive (a perpetual problem) and the host was pouring herself a glass of wine. She started to offer me one, then hesitated. Did I drink or …?

Why was I surprised? Why hadn’t I seen this coming? Well, partly because it seemed a particularly personal question to ask, but also because my book was fiction. I mean, does Stephen King get asked if he’s spent time with The Tommyknockers?

So why, I was bold enough to ask back (after a couple of glasses of wine), had they asked that question? The answer that came back was always the same: some version of aren`t you supposed to write what you know?

Ah, that old adage that has somehow been turned into: aren`t you supposed to be writing about yourself?

Well, folks, I’m no expert but I beg to differ. You see, to me, writing about yourself is called memoir (or if you’re already famous, autobiography. What’s the difference anyway? I’ve never understood). A thinly disguised version of your life may be sold as fiction – legally it might even have to be called fiction – but it isn’t, really. At least, not what I think of as fiction.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I too have a novel that is a (partially) thinly disguised fictional account of some things that happened in my life. Current location: a deep dark drawer in my office. If I should die famous, perhaps some dedicated soul with spend their academic career trying to decipher what was real and what was fiction (hint to potential-future-academic: about half is total fiction, but honestly, don’t waste your time).

A writer friend of mine calls these kinds of novels “starter novels” and it’s a term that I think is entirely appropriate and have adopted. My starter novel certainly served a purpose. It taught me that I could write something that was 90,000 words long. It taught me that I could make things up (remember that 50%!). It taught me that to write a novel you have to learn how to write when you are not feeling inspired. Etc.

In the big picture, I essentially look at that novel as sorbet, a palate cleanser if you will. I needed to get myself out of the way (and down on paper) in order to be able to create imaginary people and situations. I started with me; I ended up with fiction.

Photobucket [3]Where am I going with this? Oh, right. Anyway, when I finished my starter novel, I had an idea for a novel that was completely fiction. I decided to write it. And while there are a few locations and events that are based on real life in it, I came to an understanding of what I think write what you know means. To me, it means taking the emotions you’ve felt through your real life experiences and transposing those onto your fictional characters. Something good has happened to my main character – how do I describe it? How do I feel when something good happens to me?

I think that this is how you write characters that seem true to life; not because they are based on real-life characters, but because their reactions to your imagined situations are true to life.

Funny side-related story: I admit that there are two people in Spin that are based on real people I briefly met. The dialogue attributed to them is pretty much exactly what they said (at least, as far as I remember it. There may have been a few drinks involved. Maybe that’s why people keep asking me if I’ve been to rehab?). When I’ve identified these characters as being “real” people (and even sometimes when I haven’t), I’m often met with the following reaction: oh, those were the only two people in the book who I didn’t think were real!

So, either I suck at transposing real people onto the page or there’s a writing lesson in there somewhere. You decide.

At the end of the day (overused expression) you have to write what you feel compelled to write. But I think you should challenge yourself. Just because writing about your own life is in many ways easier (no pesky plot to think up, for one) doesn’t mean that it will be the best thing you write. In fact, in most cases, I bet it isn’t.

And no, I’ve never been to rehab. Not even a little bit.

Thanks so much, Catherine, for a great post. Readers, you can learn more about Catherine at her website [5], or follow her on Twitter [6]. Write on. 

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Darwin Bell [7]

About Catherine McKenzie [8]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine is the author of 11 bestselling novels, including HIDDEN, THE GOOD LIAR, I’LL NEVER TELL and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Her most recent novel, SIX WEEKS TO LIVE, releases in Canada April 20 and the US May 4, 2021.