A great deal of my process is unconscious. I usually begin each novel with a voice in my head. I have no idea how the story is going to end, who is going to show up day to day, or what they might do. I don’t even fully know what a book is about until I’ve been sitting with it for a while.
This is why I was about halfway through the writing of FRAGILE when I finally realized what it was about — and that the story at its center was an event from my own past.
When I was a teenager, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we were friends. But we were acquaintances, played together in the same school orchestra. And her horrible, tragic death was a terrifying and hugely traumatic moment in a quiet, suburban town where nothing like that had ever happened before. This event changed me. It changed the way I saw the world. And I carried it with me in ways I wasn’t aware of until I was metabolizing it on the page — more than twenty-five years later.
This story has tried to make its way out in other partials that I have discarded or abandoned. The voices that had tried to tell it before were never strong enough to center a novel around. It is notable that the voices who finally were able to tell the tale are much older, people with a lot of distance from the fictional event. In other words, it’s almost as if we all — the characters and the author — needed to grow up a little to have access to the heart of the story, to really understand it.
But all that said, FRAGILE is not about the actual abduction and murder. My memories of what actually occurred, the police investigation, the trial and conviction are vague at best. And I did nothing to rectify that fact. I did not track down key players, conduct interviews, find news accounts. I didn’t want it to be that kind of book. I had a fear of exploiting someone who had met a tragic end, of causing pain to people who surely didn’t deserve any more.
So I wrote from my center, as I always do. I honored the voices in my head and let them tell their story — which is similar in many ways to actual events from my past, but so very different. And maybe this is the case for all fiction. It comes from a true and honest place, a soup served from the imagination, experiences and observations of the author. The actual germ of the story, whether inspiration came from within or without, matters very little in the telling.
When I realized what I was writing about, I knew I would only be writing about its essence. And I only knew I was there in the way that we know we are dreaming. Sometimes in dreams we find ourselves in an unrecognizable place. And yet somehow we understand that we are in, for example, our childhood home. But we only know we’re there because we know it on some cellular level. Writing FRAGILE was like that, a kind of dream memory that wove itself into my narrative.
I suppose that makes sense because a major theme in FRAGILE is the power of memories – particularly childhood and hidden memories. They’re misty and vague, but they play a gigantic role in how we define ourselves. Some we hold on to, replay over and over. Others we tamp down, try to forget. In both cases, they have a hold on how we think about the past, the present and the future. Most of the characters in FRAGILE are struggling with lost selves, hidden selves, former selves they can’t escape and events they don’t want to remember but can’t move past.
I don’t think I could have told this story at nineteen when I began my first novel. I don’t think I could have told it at any other moment until I did. In writing FRAGILE I learned that you can have a story in you and not have the ability to tell it. That it can take years and decades to develop the skills, the craft, the talent to bring a story to life. I honestly believe that it took me the writing of eight novels to learn what I needed to in order to write FRAGILE. Maybe I needed that long, also, to come to terms with something so horrifying, so real, so deeply and truly sad. Maybe I needed to be a wife, a mother — a grown up — to have the perspective I needed to do justice to my memory of a lost girl.