I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. She ranges far in subject matter—her dog, a research trip in an RV, the LA police department—but the second essay is the one that probably would be of the most interest to writers. In “The Getaway Car,” she talks about her start as a writer, the writers and teachers who gave her guidance, how she wrote her first novel. I found memorable insights and moments when I said Yes! Toward the end, she made an observation that urged me to consider what I do with my own work.
Dorothy Allison once told me that she was worried she had only one story to tell, and at that moment I realized that I had only one story as well … and that really the work of just about any writer you can think of can be boiled down to one story.
So, I thought, if Patchett is right, then what is my one story? I came up with the answer in a matter of seconds, it was so obvious. And yet I had never considered it before.
I write about families. Whatever else is going on in my novels, it keeps coming back to families. Let me show you.
My first book, Free Fall, a young adult novel published by HarperCollins (and soon to be an e-book): A teenage girl is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother as her parents consider whether to get a divorce.
My next novel (which to our everlasting regret, my agent was unable to sell), The Eye of a Blackbird: A woman does whatever she needs to in order to keep her son safe, after she inadvertently pisses off the Russian mob.
My first e-book, Lost Mothers: Two sisters, who lost their mother when they were children, spend the Fourth of July weekend with one of the sisters’ extended in-law family at a lake in New Hampshire.
My second e-book, Every New Beginning: A single mother realizes that just because she divorced her emotionally abusive husband doesn’t mean he’s going to stay out of her life.
And the book my agent is currently sending to editors, As the Crow Flies: A life-altering event from twelve years earlier still reverberates through the lives of a thirty-six-year-old woman and her niece, her niece’s husband, and her sister.
Oh, and the book I’m working on now, with the working title of Driving Rules: A seventy-nine-year-old woman, who was a bestselling author in the ’60s and ’70s, is writing her memoir, and no one in her family is happy about this.
To say that I write about families seems trite and simplistic. After all, it’s hard not to write about families. Family has a basic, formative effect on a protagonist, even if family members never show up in the book. Even if the main character is an only child and an orphan, who has no other living relatives, that lack of family is bound to have done something to him or her.
This is what I’m interested in. The ties that bind—and sometimes choke. Endless story possibilities.