Nicholson Baker has a new book out, a non-fiction piece about World War II entitled Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, and I heard him speak about it and other topics on a recent New York Public Library podcast. He said something quite interesting during the talk, which I have since fallen in love with. When asked if a viewpoint in his latest book represents his own, Baker said that as a novelist, you “…take little pieces of yourself and grow them artificially.”
I couldn’t agree more.
When friends began reading the first drafts of SOMETHING MISSING, the question most often asked was if I had actually engaged in the kind of thievery that the book describes. Some of Elysha’s family members even took her aside and asked if I was a thief before meeting her.
While the answer is sadly no, there are certain parts of Martin’s character that come directly from me, though I did not realize it at the time. As I was writing the book, I was in therapy for post traumatic stress disorder, the result of an armed robbery from more than a decade before. The robbery had left me with constant, reoccurring nightmares and a host of other symptoms that I did not understand until I began speaking to a therapist.
My propensity to plan.
The ease to which I am startled.
My need to identify all exits in a building before feeling safe.
The ritual of analyzing alternatives to almost any situation.
My desire to sit facing the door of a restaurant whenever possible.
As the therapy and the book progressed, it became clear to me that Martin’s methodical, cautious, thoughtful nature was a piece of me, a part of myself that I was unconsciously expressing in words. My therapist brought this to my attention after hearing about Martin and his story in one of our session. When I finished outlining the book for him, he asked, “Where did you get the name Martin?”
“I don’t know. It just came to me.”
"You realize,” he said, “that you couldn’t have found a name closer to your own if you had tried.”
Ironically, I hadn’t.
Since then, I have come to find parts of myself in many of my characters, and this newfound awareness has helped me to empathize and embrace some of my less than savory characters. In my current manuscript, Milo, my protagonist, recently encountered a man named Louis, who is a bit of a hedonist. While Louis and I have little in common in terms of appearance, behavior or lifestyle, Louis’s hedonism comes from a belief that he and I both share in regards to the nature of individuality and normalcy as it relates to society. We share a common belief, but we choose to express that belief in divergent ways. In fact, a science fiction fan might think of Louis as a bizarre and misguided version of me from some alternate universe.
But the fact remains: Louis, Martin, Milo, and most of my characters are pieces of me, grown artificially, as Nicholson Baker so eloquently stated.