When I started writing my new novel, NO ONE YOU KNOW, I knew that I wanted to write a book about storytelling, about the blurred line between fact and fiction, about how literary ambition and the desire to tell the perfect story can cause a lot of grief. I knew what sort of trouble I wanted to get my characters into, but I had no clue how to get them out of it.
Enter real life. About a year and a half ago, my husband Kevin and I met legendary rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres and his wife Dianne at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Laureates dinner. The four of us immediately hit it off, and because Ben and Dianne happened to be into the same Bravo shows we’re into, we spent a few evenings in one another’s homes, watching Project Runway and Top Chef, while I secretly fondled Ben’s Emmys.
About this time I was stuck, uncertain how to solve a pretty major problem I’d created in the book: the narrator, Ellie, is trying to figure out who might have been involved in her sister’s death two decades before. Soon there was a former rock-and-roller in the mix–Billy Boudreaux–who’d been fast and furious on his way to music stardom in the seventies but who hadn’t been heard from in decades. I couldn’t figure out how Ellie would find him, until I thought of Rolling Stone, and Ben Fong-Torres, who’d been an editor there at exactly the time that my rocker was hitting it big. One thing led to another, and pretty soon Ellie was going to visit Ben at his house. This was supposed to be a single scene, a diversion within the fabric of the story. But so much of writing is accidental, so much of it hinges on that moment when you’re typing away and think, well wouldn’t it be neat if…
Wouldn’t it be neat, I thought, if Ben took on a bigger role. A pretty significant role, actually. Once I’d got him wound up all good and tight in the plot, I asked if it would be okay to use his real name in the book, and very kindly he consented. He even let me put his house in there, as long as I promised not to be too specific about its location.
At the very end of No One You Know, I figured out what I’d been trying to say all along. Having become lost in the middle of the night on an unfamiliar San Francisco street, Ellie remarks, “Sometimes it felt as if books and life formed a strange origami, the intricate folds and secret shadows so intricately connected, it was impossible to tell one from the other.” Upon looking up into an open window, she encounters an image of a woman turning off a lamp, a moment that seems too much like a scene she has lived before. As I wrote the scene, I found myself staring into the window with Ellie, realizing, much to my dismay, that I too recognized the woman in the window–she is a character from a much earlier book, one I wrote while living in a very eerie old house in Knoxville, Tennessee.
With each subsequent book I write, I have the sensation of falling a bit farther into the rabbit hole. What is fiction, and what is fact? What have I lived, and what only seems familiar to me because I have written it into a novel? The thing is, now I’m starting to take other people with me. Just a warning, should you be in my general vicinity while the next novel is in progress.
Join me at the Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco, Tuesday, July 15, 7:30 p.m., or The Depot in Mill Valley, CA, Wed, July 16, 7:00 p.m.