One of the hazards of writing fiction in first person is that readers, whether consciously or not, often confuse the author with the narrator. I’ve had plenty of readers familiar with Solstice, which features dual first-person point-of-view characters, ask, “Which narrator is you?” And the answer, as most writers will tell you, is both Sam and Emily and neither of them. Like many others, I favor the smorgasbord technique of character development—borrow a little here from myself, a little there from my closest friends and loved ones, a pinch of invention, and tidbits from work, movies, and other novels, and voila! A character is born.
I wasn’t surprised, then, when a recent review on Amazon for Flight included this sentence: “The main character Ashley is drawn so well that I found myself wondering at times if this was an autobiography.” She added, “I don’t really think it is, but it’s a testament to the realism and complexity of Ashley that I even wondered.” (Thank you, Amazon reader!)
Flattering, no? But while nice for me, the author, to read, this comment also points to the larger issue of author/narrator conflation, which in turn reminds me that I wrote a “Next Big Thing” blog post on Flight last summer that I never actually posted on my blog–which sort of sums up my 2013 writing life nicely, I think. So here it is. Perhaps it will offer a broader explanation of what I do and don’t share with Ashley, my latest view-point protagonist.
(By the way, for an entertaining take on the craft of characterization, check out Andrew Miller’s 2011 piece in The Guardian.)
What is the working title of your next book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
In the mid-1980s, a plane crash in Detroit made national headlines. An airliner crashed on take-off, killing everyone on board except a 4-year-old girl. My parents and I were on a road trip to look at colleges the week of the crash, and our route home took us along I-94 in Detroit where the plane had gone down less than a week before. The large debris had been cleared but the impact on the landscape was still evident. The impact on my parents and me was also evident—we talked of little else during the two-hour drive home from Detroit.
Later, in college, when I fell in love for the first time, it happened to be with a woman whose father had died in a plane crash six months before we met. Her grief was still raw and remained so during our year together. That experience somehow intertwined in my mind with the accident whose aftermath I had witnessed. When I sat down to write my first serious post-college novel, the story of Flight came to me almost entirely intact. The first draft was high on plot and low on character development, so when I started rewriting it a couple of years ago, I focused on setting, character, and all the other elements I’d neglected in my first, early rush to get the story out of my head in some form.
What genre does your book fall under?
Contemporary fiction/coming-of-age/new adult. It features a love story, too, but it is not, as several reviewers have noted, a traditional lesbian romance.
What is the synopsis or blurb of your book?
It’s June 1993, and Ashley Lake has just been reminded that she is not a lucky person. As a small child, she lost her parents in a plane crash from which she emerged as sole survivor. More recently, as a high school senior, she watched the aunt who raised her succumb to cancer, leaving her to wonder: Am I cursed?
Rocked by her aunt’s death, Ash puts plans for a collegiate track and field career on hold and moves to New York City. But even as she settles into life in The City, Ash knows she can’t stay forever. Because while it doesn’t look like she’ll be the next Wilma Rudolph, she still might find an encouraging college coach and welcoming teammates. Possibly, even, the perfect place—or person—to call home.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
That’s a tough one. I would say Jessica Biel in her Seventh Heaven days would make a pretty good Ash, but I don’t have a time machine, so…
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Self-published via my imprint, Second Growth Books.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
One year, although that was more than fifteen years ago, so the first draft seems more like a plan for a novel than a fully articulated manuscript.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The aforementioned brushes with aviation accidents, along with the illnesses/passing of assorted persons in my life. My godmother, Alice, died of cancer when I was seven. She was the first person other than my parents to hold me in the hospital when I was born, so losing her was rough. Kris and I named our oldest daughter “Alex” in honor of Alice—a slightly more modern take on a classic name.
My mother has also battled with illness. She has an immune system disorder, but when I was in high school she received various incorrect diagnoses, at least two of which were terminal. For a while, there, I thought we would lose her. Fortunately, the misdiagnoses were eventually corrected, but the impact of that experience on me as a teenager and young adult has had a significant influence on the stories I tell.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My Mom’s family is from Chattanooga, TN, and one of my father’s aunts lived in Signal Mountain, where Ash hails from. I also lived in New York City right after college, and I wrote the first draft of Flight shortly after leaving the East Coast for Seattle (the first time), so the novel contains a fairly detailed description of a newcomer’s reaction to the Big Apple in the early 1990s. Also, for fans of my earlier sports-themed novels, there’s a fair bit of action and rumination involving running and cycling. Individual rather than team sports, but fun nonetheless, I hope! I’m sure my marathon-running father would agree.
So no, not autobiography. But not not autobiography, either, just the usual author’s smorgasbord. As my wife says, be careful what you share with me–it just might end up in a book.