This week I get to do one of the things I most enjoy doing on 1st Books: Introduce a debut author. Camille Noe Pagán’s first novel, The Art of Forgetting, comes out from Dutton tomorrow! Library Journal calls it a “page turner” and American Way magazine says it’s a “powerful [book] about friendship and love.” The cover is absolutely to die for, too, and I know you’ll enjoy her post. – Meg
After a colleague of mine read an advanced copy of my first novel, The Art of Forgetting, she called me to rehash. “I loved it,” she said. “But that’s no surprise—Marissa [Forgetting’s main character] is obviously you. And,” she added, “I’m pretty sure that Julia [Marissa’s best friend] is Beth,” she said, referring to a mutual friend.
“Nope,” I told her. “I promise you, Marissa may have a background in magazines, but that’s where our similarities end. And Beth is nothing like Julia.”
“If you say so,” she laughed, clearly unconvinced.
Writers: we’re a prideful lot, and we like to think the novels we write are spun entirely from the fiber of our imaginations. Sure, some story lines may be ripped from the headlines—certain writers like Jodi Picoult or Lisa Scottoline are especially adept at weaving current events into gripping plots—but we call ourselves novelists, not memoirists, for a reason.
And yet, the more I thought about my colleague’s comments, the more I realized that I was my main character. Come to think of it, I was several of my other characters, too. As I went back through the pages of Forgetting, I saw parts of myself everywhere: Marissa’s coworker, Naomie, had my sense of humor. Marissa’s boyfriend, Dave, shared my workaholic tendencies. And Julia, my protagonist’s best friend? She was Beth, after all. She was Beth—and Sarah, and Tricia, and Florence, and dozens of other people I’ve met in my life.
An old boss of mine liked to repeat the adage, “Small people talk about things; average people talk about other people; and great people talk about ideas.”
Hmph, I always thought when she said this. I like to talk about ideas—but I love to talk about people. I want to hear what my relatives in the middle of Appalachia are up to, and I’ll happily discuss a friend’s relationship problems at length with her. I’ll humor my neighbor’s ramblings on whether God exists, and my ears perk up with interest when I hear through the grapevine than an old acquaintance just adopted several siblings from Ethiopia. I soak it all up like a sapling in the rain.
Would I steal these scenes, these people, for my novel? I hope not, and I certainly try not to. But the complexity of my friend’s emotions, the joy of my acquaintance’s new family, the nuances of my neighbor’s speech: I cannot promise that these things won’t make their way into my work one day. In fact, it’s entirely likely that they will.
Writers, at the core, are students of people. It’s our job to study those around us, so we can go create characters who seem so lifelike that a reader fails to remember she’s reading fiction.
So the next time someone tells you that she sees you, or herself, or another real person in your novel, thank her: it’s the highest compliment a novelist can receive. – Camille