People often ask me how I know when I have material that I think might work in a novel. It’s no secret that each of my five novels has been based on actual events from the news, but news isn’t what first seduces me. What hooks me every time is usually something that I have to invent—characters in the midst of moral ambiguity. Something in the news might catch my eye, but before I can commit to spending the time and energy it takes to write a novel, I have to play the “what-if” game, and that game always leads me to what I consider the center of the book, and that center is always located within character. A reclusive math tutor who adores one of his pupils fails her at the moment of crisis. An elderly bachelor lets a shameful moment from his past dictate his life, yearning for connection while at the same time protecting himself from the outer world. A young girl falls under the spell of an older woman and finds herself torn between what she knows is right and her desire for love and acceptance. A talented gardener has to decide whether to go along with the status quo or to stand beside his neighbors. The key for me, when I test material to see if it has the depth of content that a novel must have, is whether the central event will meet the main character in a place of uncertainty.
So it is with my new novel, Late One Night. Taken from the true story of a tragic house trailer fire, this books finds its character center in the story of Ronnie Black, a man quick to temper, a man who’s caught between an old life he’s trying to leave and a new one he’s trying to make. This is the sort of situation that draws me in, this feeling of being pushed and pulled. That’s what my imagination created when I played the “what-if” game with the true story. What if the husband lived outside the home at the time of the fire, and what if the fire turned out to be deliberately set, and what if gossip made the husband suspect? Finally, what if the husband was hiding the truth, and that truth turned out to be nothing like what the community members would expect? What if it became impossible to utterly condemn and completely assign blame to any single person?
I’m interested in characters who find themselves in trouble of their own making. I’m interested in what they’ll do to protect themselves from further trouble, what they’ll do to try to save themselves, what they’ll do to try to make amends. I’m interested in characters who are flawed. I’m interested in their missteps, their misdeeds, their missed opportunities. I want to portray them in a way that readers will at sometimes hate them, sometimes love them, sometimes want to be rid of them, and sometimes never want them to leave.
I want, in short, to write a novel in which the characters are just like us: imperfect, riddled with doubts, living with pressure, making mistakes, and trying to redeem themselves.
At the end of Late One Night, Ronnie Black thinks about all he’s lived through and how that’s made everyone he knows more alive to him: “They were more alive to him because of the part of the story he swore he’d never tell, the part that left him knowing in a way he never had how scared they all were, how broken.” I’m interested in the stories my characters don’t want to tell. It’s those stories that remind us of what we share: human weakness and a desire to love and to be loved in return. That’s what the news stories leave out. That’s why I write novels.