Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.~ Goethe
Frank Peretti once said that readers could tell the journey he’s been on by the books he’s written. Like Frank, when I started writing I had no clue how much of my own personality, hopes, failures, and more than anything, struggles, would reveal themselves in my fiction.
My first published novel, Crossing Oceans (2010) told the story of a dying mother who had to go home to her sleepy North Carolina town to face the ghosts of her past and tell the man she left behind that he’s about to inherit a daughter he didn’t know he had.
Only after I had written it, did I realize that I had been working out my own grief. Many assumed I had lived through a diagnosis of cancer myself, or lost someone close to me to the disease, but this wasn’t the case. The cancer I was dealing with was the dissolution of a marriage that produced two amazing boys. When my (then) husband asked for a divorce, it felt as if I were dying.
My third novel, Wings of Glass, deals with the subject of why some women stay in abusive relationships even when they’re surrounded with supportive friends and family. I was able to write the mindset of the victim, Penny Taylor, because I grew up watching my mother in abusive relationships, then later, two of my sisters. I was no doormat, so there was no way I would end up like them … until my boyfriend hit me for the first time and I found myself actually making excuses for him. While I’ve worked hard to clear up the faulty thinking that put me in that situation, (and am now very happily married to a man who would never touch a woman that way), I remember what it was like to be abused because I lived it. I haven’t experienced everything Penny did in Wings of Glass, nor did my family. . . just enough to get it.
Like my debut, Crossing Oceans, my latest novel, Driftwood Tides, delves into the topic of a surprise daughter showing up on her father’s doorstep. If you knew my history, it would be easy to understand why I continue to return to this theme. When I was a girl of eleven or twelve, my mother disclosed that the only father I’d ever known was not my biological one. Being raised by my father, and a definite daddy’s girl, it was a life-shaking admission. For years, I wrestled with curiosity about my ancestry and ultimately worked out my personal question of what makes a man a father. I dedicated Driftwood Tides to the daddy who raised me, because, I’ve concluded, love and dedication trumps biology in the parenting department.
When I read novels by other authors, what they are dealing with in their personal lives is sometimes painfully clear. Best-selling author, agent and editor, Karen Ball, wrote The Breaking Point based in part on her own marital struggles. She wrote this in her acknowledgments of that book:
“A wise friend and gifted writer, Robin Jones Gunn, once said that when we write the books that stem from our truest passion, we find ourselves ‘floating on a sea of reluctant transparency.’ That’s certainly true of this book.”
I believe good fiction happens when writers get emotionally naked. Sometimes when we delve into our souls, the blackness we find there can be disturbing. Sometimes our shovel clinks against the lid of an unopened treasure chest— but as novelists, it is our job to break that ground, come what may.
The unnerving part comes when we pluck what we find from the earth, hold it up and ask: “Look what I’ve found … is this normal?”
It is a terrifying thing, for authors to pour so much of who we are into a book and then let others read it, and worse, publicly review it.
As deeply personal as stories can be though, it is not just the earth shattering that writers knowingly, or unknowingly, reveal about ourselves in our books. Our personal preferences of the careers we wouldn’t mind trying on for a few hundred pages, the person we either see ourselves as, or wish we did, and even the geography we are most partial to can often be uncovered between the pages of our novels.
One of my favorite places on earth is the shore of The Outer Banks in North Carolina. I also have a deep connection to the mountains and rivers of the East Coast. Nature has always been where I’ve felt closest to God and where I go to regain serenity. I tend to set my stories in places I’ve not only been, but want to be. I suspect other writers do the same because we have to mentally live in the scenes we set for the length of time it takes to write the book.
After reading this, you may never look at your favorite author the same way, but be careful about assuming too much. Unless you the know the author’s personal struggles, you might assume they’ve lived through what they haven’t, or have inclinations that only live inside their imagination. Read enough of their stories, however, and the themes may begin to tell another story, their story.