On Writing from (My) Life


I have always resisted writing out of my own life, because by necessity it would involve writing about people I knew, or have known, and to me this seems unseemly and—yes—even a little disrespectful. Because, of course, were I to shine a positive light on them they’d still be offended, because, really, who wants to be defined for some as that weird guyin that novel I just read. I have, however, on one or two wicked occasions, added tiny cameo (though non-named) appearances of people who may have deserved eternal damnation and hellfire, or at least mockery in a few lines of prose. And once, with his permission (and a subtle change in name) based a secondary character on a guy I knew in college. As for the others, they won’t know who they are, but I will, and it makes me feel all the better. 

But I’ve also broken my rule on two occasions. The event that triggers the action in my sixth novel, Airtight, was directly based on something that I was involved in during in my first year of college. The idea came to me while watching the Quentin Tarantino film, Jackie Brown. Seeing all these middle-aged people involving themselves with planning a crime reminded me of something I had completely forgotten. I turned to my wife and said, “We never dug it up.” 

And then I realized I had a story to tell about a drug deal in Cincinnati, about the worst batch of $450 weed I had ever helped to purchase in those very interesting years, and how, unable to sell much more than a nickel bag or two at the very straitlaced Midwestern college I had mistakenly decided to attend (and which eventually, and politely and to my eternal gratitude, asked me to get out), my co-conspirators and I buried them in airtight Mason jars on the college property. And then promptly forgot about them. 

 In a similar way, my forthcoming novel The Drowning was triggered by a movie, writer-director Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, starring Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. It’s about an affable and successful man who has relocated to L.A. from Chicago, and who, while shopping with his wife for furnishings for their new house, runs into Edgerton’s character, whom he’d known in high school, and whom he called “Gordo the Weirdo.” And then Bateman’s world comes tumbling creepily down because of something he’d done in the past to this man, who had never forgotten it, and whose life has been marked by this trauma. And Bateman goes from being an affable guy to something of a monster. 

 Something about the concept—the idea of the past coming back to haunt and even sabotage one’s life—stuck with me. I remembered what happened to me when I was eight years old in summer camp, and saw exactly the hook for my next novel. Which is how The Drowning came to be. More on that in my next blog…