Lions, Tigers, and Bears?

NOPE! More like bullies, giraffes and cats. Oh my!

Post first appeared on Uncommon YA, Friday, 4/11/14.

A neighborhood stray dies in the street near our house. A giraffe graces the blacktop of our local mall. John R * * * * * * * repeatedly punches my arm in Mr. Whealon’s 11th grade history class. This is just a sampling of how any-and-everything slinks from life into my writing.

I was driven to write THE NAMESAKE by a crushing family loss: the 2001 suicide of my cousin, Mark. That initial inspiration, a son lost in the wake of his father’s self-destruction, was just my entry point. As the story revealed itself, I pulled and twisted bits of my history—and daily experience—into the mosaic of fiction. Writing became a mesh of memory and immediacy. In fabricating my character’s experience, I drew heavily on my own.

Evan’s encounter weekend (minus the freaky trauma) so closely mirrored mine, it was equally effortless and unsettling committing it to page. Lighter moments, like Evan drinking Mochakoola smoothies at the mall during a snowstorm, benefited from my location while writing it. At the mall. During a snowstorm. Drinking…well, you get the idea. Noticing, and then recording, the truth of small moments brings life to fiction, fiction to life.

My current YA work-in-progress, the story of a cheeky gal named Teddi Alder, borrows liberally from my real life as well. Unlike Evan’s, Teddi’s story—a psychological thriller of mystery, memory and romance—bears little narrative resemblance to my life, but oh, the details of place! Here, a brief similarities quiz:

Teddi lives:
a) next door to a park pool (Ditto her creator)
b) in a renovated family store (Yup)
c) both a & b

She suffers:
a) a pathological fear of shark attack (Umm, me too)
b) a love of giraffes bordering on obsession (Check)
c) both a & b

Teddi’s summer activities include:
a) a writing workshop (Oh yeah!)
b) spending time with her wonky cockapoo (Best dog ever!)
c) both a & b

Sensing a pattern? Life inspires.

It’s been really fun this time around just allowing the story to wander into uncharted territory, while intentionally frontloading details of my life into the creation of setting and character. I’m also grooving on slipping folks’ names into the mix (Andrea? Julia?).

So I’m not sure I’ve answered the inspiration prompt yet. I guess for me it boils down to connection. Connecting with the world around me, letting it in, avoiding limits of the “I can’t write that/go there” variety.

Today in my developmental writing class, a student said, “The key to improving is not accepting limits.” I found that inspirational, too (Thanks, Rob). Truth is my students inspire me deeply; their ability to soldier on in the face of often unfathomable challenges is profound. Sometimes I can’t resist weaving bits of our experience into story.

What inspires me? Everything, I guess. If I had to serve up a sliver of inspiration advice, it would probably be: Pay attention. To everything. You never know how that dead cat, unexpected giraffe, or classroom bully will enrich your fiction.

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Purchase THE NAMESAKE on Amazon, Barnes & or find it on Indiebound.
Publishers Weekly praised my novel as “an introspective debut.”

Kirkus Reviews called the book “a memorable, disturbing story, carefully wrought.”

On the Blogcritics site, book blogger, Dayla FM, called The Namesake “an original and unforgiving exploration of the teenage psyche.”

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