It’s pretty clear that writers have a strong influence on our characters. We make them who they are. They are nothing without us. Until we publish a story with them in it, anyway, and then they make a break for it.
The thing that surprises me (one of the things) is how our characters can influence us. Bridget, for example, a character in The Sisterhood novels. She is not much like me. She’s the least like me of the four main characters. (Readers always seem to love her the most.) I realize that since I’ve started writing about Bee, she has inspired me. She inspires me to do more and think less. To worry less. She’s not afraid of how people see her or how things seem. She’s a runner. When I first wrote about her I was not a runner. I had developed a strong dislike of running in fifth grade when we had to run an 8-minute mile for the Presidential Fitness test. But I realized I loved running with Bee–running toward things, running away from things. I realized what a release it was for her. As I attempted to occupy her mind as her writer, I felt it too.
Soon after I wrote the Second Summer, in which Bee does some truly cathartic running, I started running myself. It was pretty miserable at first. I’d run half a mile and feel exhausted. “You’re not running far enough,” a friend told me. That, weirdly enough, turned out to be true. Two miles felt better than one mile. Soon three miles felt better than two. When I described Bee running seven or eight miles in under an hour, I thought it was nearly superhuman. Now I can do that, and it feels pretty ordinary. And though I feel like I know Bee better now, she’s become less mysterious. Maybe she was always in there somewhere.
This is the day my new book comes out. Always a slightly (or profoundly) nervewracking experience. I got up at 6 am to start doing radio interviews. I talked to Whoopi Goldberg. That was fun. I tend to get involved in the conversation and forget to mention the title of the book and website info at the beginning and end, which is what you are supposed to do. I’m not much of a salesperson, I’m afraid.
It’s tricky to do live phone interviews from home-at least from my particular home. I try to be smooth and professional and put on a radio voice while my kids are banging on the door because they can’t find their shoes and another phone is ringing and a siren is blaring out the window and the fire alarm is beeping because I forgot to replace the battery.
I always worry on such a day. I worry that no one will buy the book. I worry that many people will buy the book, but no one will like it. I worry that my mind will wander on live TV: I will stare blankly at the camera while my hair is sticking up in some funny way. I worry that no one will come to my bookstore signings. I worry that lots of people will come and that I will be boring and disappointing. “You do this every time,” my husband points out.
But this day also brings a certain joy. I am launching these made-up people into the world and giving them a kind of life. I am turning a private, meditative writing experience into a reading experience I hope to share. I am trying to connect my inner life and my stories to the inner lives of others. As E.M. Forster famously wrote in Howards End, “Only connect.”
It’s always nervewracking to put yourself out there. But it’s the root of joy.