I think I’ve mentioned here before how surprised I was when my first novel (Spin, about a journalist who follows a celebrity into rehab) came out and people automatically assumed that I’d based my main character on myself. That, at a minimum, I’d either been to rehab or had seriously considered it, or, at the limit, that I was a journalist who’d actually gone into rehab undercover. I still maintain that Stephen King never gets asked these questions, but I know why people do: write what you know. If people have only ever heard one thing about about writing, they’ve heard that. And while I think people confuse that saying for “write about yourself,” that’s another conversation.
For many reasons, I’ve always steered clear of writing either about me or people I know. One reason is that I don’t think I’m very good at capturing the essence of real people on paper. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? But bear with me. In each of my first two novels, there is a minor, walk-on character that is based on someone I met briefly. Their personalities were so larger-than-life that I just had to stick them in there, somewhere. I think they are hilarious and I purposively crafted scenes around them. But in both instances, I’ve had people mention them as the only characters they didn’t find believable in the book. This puzzled me for many years, until I finally figured it out: I hadn’t done the work. Because they existed, I hadn’t fleshed them out. They were 2-D versions of real people, and so they seemed as flat as the page.
[pullquote]I’ve always steered clear of writing either about me or people I know.[/pullquote]
All that being said, of course sometimes things slip in subconsciously—things people have told me, things I’ve seen, stories I’ve heard. And then, sometimes, real life provides a spark that I run with. That happened with my soon to be released novel, Smoke. Which is what got me thinking about this all over again.
I’ve been going to a fantastic writer’s conference in Jackson Hole every summer since 2010. I feel in love with the place, and made many good friends. Three years ago, they had a terrible fire season. There were already bad fires when I was there in June; when I climbed to the top of the local hill, I saw a stack of smoke that looked like a bomb had gone off. In September, a man who was burning some trash in a barrel—despite there being a zillion fire warnings in place—started a massive fire that raged for weeks and threatened the town. People I knew had to move out of their houses. Others were watching flames from their front porch. It was a tense time that I watched closely, signing up for fire updates and obsessively reading the daily briefings from the fire officials.
I guess part of me was already thinking of writing about it because I had this line that was stuck in my head: the things that get lost in the fire. But I put it away because that seemed to be too close to home. I didn’t want to benefit from the stress and anxiety of my friends. Although many of them are writers themselves, and would surely understand if they felt that they saw themselves in the pages of my book, I still held back.
Though the danger passed, the idea stayed with me. It took hold. It grew. You might say that it started a fire in me. I felt like I had to write the book. But how to do that without basing myself on my friends’ experiences?
In that kind of circumstance, how do you avoid stealing a life?
Perhaps I’m wrong to worry about this. Ultimately, every character I write is some amalgam of my experiences and my imagination, which is fueled by my experience. If someone reads a book and sees themselves in it, isn’t that what art is?
At least, that’s what I’ll be telling my friends when they ask.
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