The Lost Girl

The theme of “the lost girl” is something I find surfacing in my work again and again. She turns up missing, murdered, abused, neglected. She’s helpless, powerless, unable to circumvent the horrible things that befall her.

In earlier novels, my protagonist true crime author Lydia Strong* has an obsession with lost girls, never realizing until much later in the series that it’s herself she’s trying to save. Ridley Jones, the protagonist of BEAUTIFUL LIES and SLIVER OF TRUTH is a lost girl in her own way. Though she’s the child of love and privilege, she’s also the victim of terrible lies told by strong and narcissistic people allegedly motivated by lofty goals. In her way, Ridley represents an evolution in the lost girl theme, because ultimately she claims herself, fights her own battles. Those of you who have read her story know she doesn’t win them all and some questions remain unanswered even at the end of SLIVER OF TRUTH. But that’s life, right? Live to fight another day.

Opheila March, also known as Annie Powers, is the protagonist of BLACK OUT, my upcoming novel from Crown/ Shaye Areheart books, which will release in May 2008. In a sense, she’s the ultimate lost girl, abused or abandoned by most of the central figures in her life, including herself. And the consequences of the things she endures are horrific. Unlike my other characters, Ophelia is, in addition to being the lost girl is also a mother to a young daughter named Victory. I felt a kind of urgency in writing this book, as if the matter of the lost girl had to be resolved once and for all. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I began BLACK OUT soon after becoming a mother myself. I don’t suppose we need a panel of shrinks to figure out how that all works.

I have been pressed through emails and comments on MySpace to say a word or two about BLACK OUT. What’s the new book about? It’s a question I dread – largely because I never know how to answer. Or in answering, I’m afraid you won’t get the full picture. And, of course, you won’t. Ask an author what her book is about and she’ll tell you – but she’ll need about 500 manuscript pages to do it. Furthermore, after dwelling in that fictional universe for so long, I can hardly see the forest for the tress. It’s almost the same as asking, So what’s your life all about? It’s no coincidence that those two answers are often nearly the same answer. And I do mean this from a philosophical, thematic standpoint – minus the murder and mayhem in my actual vs. fictional life.

Anyway, here’s the very long answer …

As I wrote BLACK OUT, I am not afraid to admit that I was struggling. After the birth of my daughter, I just felt blasted. I had no idea how much I would love my child. I knew I would love her, of course, on an intellectual level – but the recoil from the life-altering laser beam of my adoration knocked me off my feet. I never knew she would occupy such a gigantic space in my heart and creative spirit. Weird as it is to say, nothing else had ever really rivaled my desire to write. I was surprised to find that whenever I was away from her to work, I just wanted to get back to her. Of course, when I was with her, I often felt guilty that I wasn’t working. I’d never been so conflicted. My good friend New York Times bestselling author Margaret Coel said, “Honey, it doesn’t get any easier!” BLACK OUT had some serious competition for my time and energy.

So, as I wrote, I grappled with larger issues: Am I a writer? Or a mother? Can you be both? Naturally, my poor husband was thinking, “Um, hello! What about me?” Then, of course, there’s the gym, and some people who used to be my friends, two ten-city book tours, my extended family … the list does go on, as you well know. Oh, and sleep. One must also sleep.

Beyond all this writer-ly angst, I was shocked at how totally insane and paranoid motherhood had made me. Let’s face it; I was already pretty insane and paranoid – otherwise I wouldn’t be a writer, or a thriller writer to boot. Motherhood caused the twisted imaginings of my mind to go to a new Tarantino-esque level. (Example: I have a friend who’s very germ-phobic and she reacted with horror when I announced that I’d be taking my six-week old baby to the day care center at my gym for an hour while I worked out.

“But she doesn’t even have her vaccines!” she said. “Aren’t you afraid of germs?”

“Germs? Are you kidding? I don’t care about germs; I’m afraid she’s going to be abducted and sold on the black market.”

She didn’t have anything to say to that. Actually what I think she said was, “Wow, you’re really nuts. That’s sad.”)

I didn’t tell her that within weeks of having our baby, I insisted that a security system be installed in our home, complete with window sensors and motion detectors. Even the salesman said, “I don’t really think you need all of this.” What does he know?

So with all this internal conflict, a new level of fear and paranoia, just the stress of being a new mom – even if you’re normal, that first year is probably pretty intense, right? – it’s no wonder the BLACK OUT deals with a fractured identity, motherhood (and all the itinerant beauty, joy and pain), dysfunctional family relationships, and the question of the lost girl: Can she claim and save herself?

I dedicated BLACK OUT to my daughter and to the daughters of some of the important women in my life … my close friends and families. Because it seems as if a lot of us are having girls these days. And, even so, with as far as we’ve come, the world doesn’t seem like a very nice place for our daughters. As American girls, they’re probably the luckiest of the bunch in certain respects. My generation, the daughters of the superwomen of the 70s, have been raised to feel that not only can we have it all – but, in fact, we must. Brilliant careers, high-achieving children, egalitarian marriages, Brazilian bikini waxes, buns of steel, while washing the gray right out of our hair … And there’s a special kind of pressure in this level of expectation. I hope that our daughters will find a world where they can pick and choose between those things without looking around for approval and permission for those choices, where they’ve been taught not to define themselves by what they see in the media, where they’re safe on the streets and in their homes. But in the meantime, I worry about her spirit – my little girl. How do I protect her? How do I keep her from becoming a lost girl, in any sense?

Drum roll …

And I suppose, ultimately, that’s what BLACK OUT is about – mothers and daughters, that fraught and fierce relationship, that impossible bond. How we can damage or bolster our daughters, how critical are the things we teach them, how we are their models, as well as their teachers. In caring for them, protecting them and making them strong, we are also caring for ourselves, healing the broken spaces within us. In BLACK OUT, Annie’s daughter is the reason she finally decides to save herself from a horrific past that’s has come back to claim the lost girl she was. She must fight, not for herself, but for her daughter. Only in doing so, can she claim the girl no one else even tried to rescue. But can she do it? Can she find strength that she didn’t know was there? Only a mother knows the answer to that question. But don’t think I’ve given anything away. For Annie, the journey is never what it seems.

I think if we’re honest, as writers, whatever we’re dealing with in our lives finds it’s way into our work – if we’re living and writing authentically. BLACK OUT was my most intense writing experience, I suppose because motherhood has been my most intense emotional experience. As I said, it doesn’t take a battalion of shrinks to figure this out. Because my process is largely unconscious, things come up in my work which sometimes surprise me. Things don’t work out the way I intended, people I didn’t expect appear, events occur that I didn’t devise or control. It’s kind of like life that way. And like life, sometimes it’s magic and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes, like motherhood, it’s both. I suppose if it hadn’t been for my daughter, I’d never have written this particular book.

People have higher expectations of the books they read than they do of their own lives. They know they can’t control everything about their lives and understand that not everything always works out the way they wanted it to. But they do expect things to move along a fairly predictable path in fiction, especially thrillers and crime fiction.

After 911, book sales sky-rocketed, particularly in this genre. I think most readers and most writers can understand why. It has long been held that readers turn to fiction to escape life. But I don’t think that’s true. I think they turn to fiction to understand life. Because a great story is a little slice of life, great characters become people with whom you are emotionally involved, and for them, you expect things to turn out okay. The bad guys get caught; justice is served. Life is mystery enough; people want to know what to expect from some small slice of their experience. Crime fiction is a place where the chaos and terror we perceive in the world is managed predictably on the page, with a beginning a middle and a happy ending. It helps us, when what we see around us is not very nice, to think that life might be contained, controlled and resolved in this way, at least somewhere.

I am known for not delivering the predictable ending. And some people don’t appreciate this about me for reasons stated above. And I’m afraid that will be doubly true in BLACK OUT. I struggled with the ending to this story and finally decided to be true to myself, to Annie. But what I do strive for, if not the pat and happy ending, the neat little bow on the package, is the right ending. My stories end the only way they can end. And as in life, my characters don’t always get what they want. But they always get what they need. And I sincerely hope that’s true for my readers, with BLACK OUT, and every little slice of life I serve them.

Stay tuned for more on BLACK OUT. I might even tell you about the actual plot one of these days, instead of waxing philosophical about theme and process …