Set in Charlotte
They say to write what you know. Problem is, I know my friends and neighbors. And they might not like what I have to say
Not everyone can predict when their life is going to change, but I can. For me it’s March 29, 2010, the day my first novel, Love in Mid Air, arrives in bookstores.
During the two years the book has been in production, I’ve been so focused on my publication date that I’ve never even tried to visualize what will happen after the book finally comes out. My mind is like a Mayan calendar; time just stops on a certain date. When I try to picture March 30, all I get is a great big blank.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the book is set in Charlotte.
And I’m set in Charlotte, too.
Why would any normal, sane, logical person set a book in her own hometown? Why would she open herself to speculation that the book is autobiographical or — far worse — that the characters in it are based on relatives and friends? Like most good Southern girls, I grew up with my grandmother’s repeated warnings not to wash your dirty laundry in public, and here I am not only washing it, but attempting to sell it at the corner bookstore for $24 a pop.
I guess the answer is that there’s nothing normal, sane, or logical about writing a novel. I toyed with the idea of setting the book in another Southern city — maybe Savannah or Richmond — but I don’t know those places like I know and love Charlotte. The gated communities, the way churches play into private lives, the people who move here and buy houses larger than they’ve ever bought before. They can afford the houses but not enough furniture to fill them, so their living rooms echo. The idea of a city that is in many ways a blank slate, the perfect canvas for up-and-coming young couples to leave their mark: it had to be Charlotte.
Besides, if I set the book in Savannah who would I really be fooling? The people who wanted to see it as an exposé still would. Writing is a strange craft, a way to simultaneously hide and reveal yourself, and it seems like the more you try to hide, the more you ultimately end up revealing.
Most of my friends are writers, so through the years I’ve heard many tales of postpublication fallout. One friend, Andrea, wrote about her small Midwestern hometown, but took the precaution of setting her novel a hundred years in the past. She loves quirky regional names so she went to the local register of deeds and researched landowners from the early 1900s, populating her novel with characters named Justice and Rivers and Copernicus.
About a month after the book came out, Andrea was in the grocery when a woman suddenly rammed her shopping cart and screamed out a curse. It seems that in her search for interesting old names for her characters, Andrea had innocently chosen one similar to the name of this woman’s grandfather. I believe the character’s name was Blue and this woman’s grandfather was named Green, but maybe I have it backward. Either way, this lady was convinced Andrea had depicted her beloved grandfather as a womanizing drunk.
Andrea was so freaked out with what she called "a bad case of authoritis" that she neither wrote anything new nor went back into that grocery for a month. She felt horribly guilty, even though this is what writers do. We borrow from real life, things we’ve dreamed, experienced, read in the paper, observed from neighbors. We scramble up the time line a bit, intensify the situations, amalgamate the characters, and call the result "fiction." The stories aren’t meant to be real — at least not in the classical sense of "this is what happened" — but try explaining that to Blue-Green’s granddaughter.
Consider this: if you’ve ever been in a car wreck you probably know that awful feeling of time slowing down … of being able to see things coming toward you but being unable to stop them … of that deep exhalation that comes out like a scream at the moment of impact. Now set that memory in a different context. Maybe your wreck happened back in 1982, just outside of Raleigh, when you were driving home from college, all alone and late at night. But your character is forty-five, living in 2010, and she’s in Montana and it’s high noon and her kids are in the car. You’re calling on your own memories to describe her wreck, perhaps to the degree that it makes you almost sick to evoke the sensations, but you don’t have kids and you’ve never been to Montana. So is the scene autobiographical or not?
It’s hard to explain to people that things can be emotionally autobiographical without being literally autobiographical. You’re stuck in a type of moral Neverland and you risk looking like the worst kind of cheat: someone who rips off real life and can’t even be bothered to keep the facts straight.
Knowing that most writers work this way is cold comfort to their family and friends. They don’t know most writers. Most writers aren’t their daughter or sister or ex-lover or co-worker who has cheerfully taken the most harrowing moment of their life, made it even worse, and then splashed it across page seventy-eight.
When I was working on my novel, there was only one person I felt I needed to confess to, one friend whose story I borrowed to an unconscionable degree. I showed her the rough draft and then nervously waited for her to get back to me.
When she did, she said, "There’s only one thing in the whole book that makes me uncomfortable."
"Whatever it is, I’ll change it," I promised.
"Well," she said. "This character has granite countertops in her kitchen and I have granite countertops in my kitchen, so everybody’s going to think that’s me."
"Honey," I said. "A lot of people have granite countertops."
"I know, but I was so happy when I got my kitchen remodeled that everybody’s going to know who you’re talking about. Could you change it to maybe …"
She beamed. "That would be fine."
So see? You can never predict what’s going to make someone feel exposed or hurt or angry. That’s the problem with telling stories, whether they’re based on reality, completely made up, or somewhere in between. You can never presage people’s reactions.
I wanted publication. I pursued it. And yet as March 29 gets closer and I move from the private world of the writer into the public world of the author, I feel a sense of dread. Somebody’s going to get mad at me. That’s a given. I just don’t know who and where and why. But I do know, from watching my friends who have preceded me into publication, that the only cure for authoritis is to start work on your next project immediately. If you sit and wait for people to react, you’re doomed.
So I’m halfway through my second novel.
It’s, um, set in Ballantyne.
In Wright’s novel, Love in Mid Air, a chance encounter with a stranger on an airplane sends Elyse Bearden, approaching forty, into an emotional tailspin. Suddenly, Elyse is willing to risk everything: her safe but stale marriage, her seemingly perfect life in an affluent Southern suburb, and her position in the community. Read the first chapter here.
Kim Wright is a Charlotte writer. Her work has appeared in Wine Spectator, Self, Travel + Leisure, and Vogue. Her first novel, Love in Mid Air (Hachette), comes out March 29.