“A certain slightly cruel disregard for the feelings of living people is simply part of the package. I think a writer, if he's any good, is not an entirely benign entity in the world." Michael Cunningham
In my first novel, I had a rich, thoughtless lying boyfriend who tells a young woman who has just lost her sister that he is single when he is actually married. In my second novel, I had a “best friend” who was co-dependent and needy, controlling and possibly in love with the main character. In my third novel, there was a family who lost a beloved son and brother and a murderer who kills a babysitter.
These characters were based on true people and I didn’t waste any sleep wondering whether someone was going to hate me or sue me or accuse me of being a bad person. Writing was punishment enough. If someone wanted to hate me for what I did, so be it.
I think of myself as a vampire who feeds on stories, overheard dialogue and memories. The fact is no one lives the same life. As the third child, my point-of-view on my parents’ marriage, how things happened as the years passed, what memories I claim as “mine” and what a sibling might label stolen, are exactly that, my subjective perspective.
My ex-husband is a journalist and a great guy. However, a woman who was dating a friend of his once described us thus: “She’s really interesting and he’s like watching paint dry.”
Chances are I had told some purloined anecdote and exaggerated that story for better effect. Also, it was probably a story about someone else because other people are fascinating. And he probably explained something accurately with precise detail. Boring.
“For the wolf of a writer, the family is a crowd of sitting ducks. There they assemble at the Thanksgiving table, poor dears — blithering uncles, drugged-out siblings, warring couples — posing for a painting, though they do not know it.” Roger Rosenblatt
Ah, the family, source of so many original and damning portraits. However, in my last novel I invented a set of parents so loving, so articulate, so dependable and selfless I doubted anyone could confuse them with the real thing. However, several readers pointed out similarities; the mother’s penchant for crossword puzzles, their witty repartee and devotion to their daughter.
I realized that I had drawn on my actual parents and that made sense. Also, people always think you’re writing about them even if you aren’t. My mother remains convinced she is in all my books, which is ironic since I have attempted to invent entirely new characters afraid of being identified as the treacherous parasite I fear I am.
Here’s the thing, if you’re a nice person who only sees the good in people, you probably shouldn’t be a writer. If you approach holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day filled with hope and joy, you probably need to take yourself and your happy thoughts elsewhere. Possibly to a large greeting card company.
I, on the other hand, will continue to notice that the bride put her bridesmaids into dresses that made them look fat, that the new parents treat their dog better than their baby, and to believe that anyone who talks about the importance of being nice is probably right, but likely to remain unpublished.