“Are your books based on real life?”
This is the question I am most often asked. The answer is, “It’s complicated.”
Straightforwardly, the answer is “no.” No one wants to read about me staring at the computer, dent furrowing deeper between my eyebrows, until it’s time for chores. Ever notice that a character never changes cat litter in a novel? Or how movies add “clacking” to typing scenes for nonexistent drama? Trust me, you don’t want to read about my real life. Writers shine when they can dig out the ordinary yet universal nugget, and give it heart. The takeaway from my actual daily routine – Leaving Unknown narrator Maeve obsessively worries about her family’s drift towards a grooved brow, striving to maintain a zen state and wrinkle-free face as a small defense against the body’s inevitable breakdown.
No one likes my how-I-became-a-writer story. It was akin to waking one morning and thinking “Today I’m going to write a novel.” I had no formal training, hadn’t been scribbling for years, and didn’t have exposure to other writers (with one notable exception). I always intended to write a book. In my mind, when I was older and had Something to say. I felt that some life nadir had to give me the wisdom to write anything meaningful. As I approached 35 and partnership in a large law firm, I realized that you don’t have to be a James Joyce to write something people will want to read. You simply have to tell a relatable story.
Which circles back to the question of what you write. There’s a danger admitting you’re on the page, a vulnerability. But stories are relatable only when they ring true. My characters are not me, but they are infused with me. If I have a gift that predisposes me to writing, it’s the ability to feel how others would feel. My books are about issues that matter to me, and my voice is there, but so is yours.
I don’t draw from the headlines, I’m inspired by the page eight stories that will become the headlines. I started writing What You Wish For after reading about a cancer survivor suing her ex-boyfriend for their frozen embryos. The woman lost and the story faded, but I didn’t stop thinking about it. It wasn’t just the murky legal status of embryos, and the medical ethics challenges. I couldn’t stop wondering about the ex-boyfriend, and how the ones we most love often hurt us the most. There are novels to be written there, and this one just scratches the surface.
Simultaneously, Proposition 8 had just ripped California in two, so I started wondering how people would make highly personal fertilitydecisions in the shadow of a controversial embryo-rights proposition. My musings were prescient. When I started writing What You Wish For, only a Georgia initiative had made page eight. Now, “personhood” legislation is part of the national conversation.
My interest was highly personal. I did not do IVF, but I am a single mother by choice. We do a disservice to our children to suggest that there is an “ideal” family. The majority no longer equates to a male-female heterosexual couple having children without medical assistance. People adopt. People rely on IVF, donor eggs, and surrogates. Single parents are raising children. Same-sex couples are raising children. The modern family is an American melting pot. Through my characters’ stories, I hope to shake loose some of the rigid judgments on what makes a family healthy. The less kids mourn the phantom “real parents” they don’t have, the more they can thrive in an environment that may be as nurturing as it is unconventional.
Each of the characters in What You Wish For feels deviant in some way, unnatural. Yet they are unified in their certainty about family. I don’t identify with one particular character in the book, but parts of each. I wish that as my son grows,
strictures are loosened, and “different” families such as ours will be part of the norm.
My work-nature is to go into my cave and type madly, emerging with my masterpiece fully formed, like Minerva springing from the head of Zeus. Unfortunately, the former lawyer in me is a slave to precision, and Minerva usually needs to lose a few pounds. My first short story was laboriously produced on an old fashioned typewriter, and proudly presented it to my junior hig
h teacher for review (and adulation). In today’s climate, the school would have been evacuated before you could say, “emotionally disturbed student.” I’m not sure why I wrote a slasher story, except a teen flair for melodrama. The young narrator described, “grey-green-
yellowish brain ooze.” It was eighteen single-spaced pages because “grey-green” and “yellow-green” are two different things, neither of which is “grey-green-yellow.” Fortunately for me, it was the 1980s, so Mrs. Felder (suppressing the urge to reach for a match) merely made vague comments until I left off seeking her exhortations to publish immediately.
My editors, thankfully, are not so generous, so I spend a lot of time cutting. The fatness of my manuscripts answers the original question. A friend counseled me on an early draft of my debut, The Best Day of Someone Else’s Life: “You don’t have to cram every story you’ve saved your whole life into this one book.” I’ve learned to pace myself. I want to share experiences, my own and those that impressed me, but it’s okay if a reader sees a color shade other than My Vision. You can get to the heart of the matter with fewer words than you think, because it is the universal nugget, in every restaurant, and every town, and every person. My books are based on real life. It just might not be mine.
Kerry Reichs is a graduate of Duke University School of Law and Stanford Institute of Public Policy, and practiced law in Washington, D.C. prior to becoming a full-time writer.