Like all authors who give talks and readings, there are certain questions I find myself getting asked repeatedly. "Do you know John Grisham?" No. "Can you get me an agent?" I can tell you where to begin your search. "Where do your ideas come from?"
Surprisingly, I get asked that last question with greater frequency than the first two. Perhaps it’s because I tend to write what are known in the industry as high-concept books. There is some debate about just what exactly a high-concept book is and it’s often easier to come up with examples from movies, one of which might be, "A black Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" (a real movie with Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac) or "Gone with the Wind set in Croatia" (OK, I made that last one up). The point is that these are properties that can be distilled down to one pithy sentence such that the reader can right away visualize what they’re getting, a sentence that manages to convey how the property is recognizably like other things that are out there and how it’s unique all at the same time. In terms of books, my first novel, The Thin Pink Line, is one I describe as a dark comedy, set in London, about a woman who fakes an entire pregnancy. Again, right away, the reader has an immediate sense of what they’re getting: "dark comedy, set in London" could equal Bridget Jones or something by Nick Hornby, while "about a woman who fakes an entire pregnancy" should hopefully translate into a response from the reader somewhere along the lines of, "Hey! I haven’t read that book before!"
But I have to confess that, when I’m asked the "Where do your ideas come from?" question, I tend to get a little deer-in-the-headlights about it. The truth of the matter is I don’t know where my ideas come from and it’s as honest to say that they come from the Ideas Fairy as anything else. When asked to elaborate, I will point out that I am a distinctly odd woman and maybe that’s a big part of it as well. I say that I’m an odd woman who tends to see the world in 250- to 350-page chunks.
Not long ago, on a message board, I saw a writer post a formula for coming up with high-concept books. In truth, stunned as I was, I forgot the formula nearly as quickly as I read it. It was just so foreign to me, the idea of going about it that way, as though the creative process for writing a book could be likened to the process of doing a picture of a happy puppy using a paint-by-numbers kit. I don’t know that I’m knocking it necessarily – hey, whatever gets creativity going for people so long as it doesn’t involve drive-by shootings is OK with me – so much as I’m saying that I can’t imagine working that way myself. And I suppose I would have to add that, to me, for writing to succeed it needs to come from a place in the writer where there is a passion to tell a particular story as opposed to a cool calculation of what should sell.
But back to seeing the world in 250- to 350-page chunks.
A handful of times a year I’m simply walking through my life when I see something or hear something or something happens to me where immediately that lightning bolt strikes and I realize, "Huh. There’s an entire book in there." It comes back to that idea of being an odd woman. I see the world strangely. Where someone else might see normalcy, I see the strangeness in things. An example might be that first book of mine, The Thin Pink Line. Other women, finding themselves pregnant after nearly 10 married years of believing they’d never get pregnant, might be moved to write a novel about a woman’s finding herself pregnant after nearly 10 married years of believing she’d never get pregnant. But in my case, the idea immediately occurred, "Hey! What if there were some sociopathic women who was making her whole pregnancy up?" And then there was the time I was at the Danbury Fair Mall and I saw a man ride up on the escalator, all dressed in black. I’m not sure what story others might see in that image, but I know what I saw: "What if there were a Great Gatsby sort of character who was a window-washer by day, living in Danbury, who might or might not really be Zorro?"
You get the idea.
I’m not sure exactly when the idea for A Little Change of Face – which is about a very attractive, never married, 39-year-old Jewish librarian from Danbury who, for one reason and another, decides to sabotage her own looks in order to find out how life will treat her once she’s no longer one of the world’s great swans – first came to me. In fact, I think the book was percolating on my backburner for much of my life. Like many readers, I’ve read countless versions of the story where an overweight or not-perfectly-attractive woman changes her appearance for the better, thereby changing how she feels about herself, and winds up with a better life, often getting revenge on her cheating ex-husband along the way; some of these books have been written by Susan Isaacs or by the late and great Olivia Goldsmith. And they’re always pleasing stories: the idea that a woman will finally become her best self in every way. But I guess the part that kept percolating on my backburner was the idea that there was an inverted spin on that story: never mind what happens to an unattractive woman who becomes attractive, what happens to a woman who takes being attractive for granted when she relinquishes the face that launched a thousand ships? Thus was born A Little Change of Face, the book that the high-concept meisters refer to as "the anti-Swan book" or "the Extreme Makeunder."
But the actual writing, once I got down to it, did not flow as easily as on previous books. True, I had my main character, Scarlett Jane Stein, and I even liked her. Hey, she shot pool, like me, so what’s not to like? And I also had the perfect foil for her, Pam, Scarlett’s Default Best Friend by virtue of her real Best Girlfriend living far out of state, a bitter and dowdy woman who is the evil Siren, first putting the bug in Scarlett’s ear that maybe all the masculine attention she’s received in her life, everything good that’s happened to her can be laid at the doorstep of what she looks like as opposed to who she is.
Still the book wasn’t working. Scarlett needed greater motivation before embarking on her strange journey.
And then a wonderful thing happened: I got the chicken pox!
On August 14, 2003, at age 41, I got the chicken pox. Not only was it more painful than having a baby after 16 hours of labor, but before too many days passed, my body was covered in about a thousand spots. Seeing myself in the mirror like that – a face that, if I didn’t totally love it, at least I was used to, transformed into something grotesque – made me realize that Scarlett needed to get the chicken pox too. Hey, I figured, let me at least get something productive out of all this pain! In the story, getting the chicken pox becomes the catalyst for Scarlett making her great change. Seeing her lovely features transformed, if only temporarily, into something she’d never want to look like in public, she begins to seriously wonder what it must be like for those people who are not as physically blessed as she has been and it finally causes her to make the leap from idea to action: "Do people love me for what I look like or who I am?"
What follows from there is what Scarlett learns about the rest of the world and, perhaps more importantly, about herself.
Seeing the extraordinary in the midst of ordinary things. Most people would get the chicken pox at age 41 and think, "This sucks!" And it did suck. Never mind the pain, of which there was plenty, I was supposed to be on television that day. I missed my big chance to be on television! But in the midst of the ordinary suckage of life going wrong and missed opportunities, I saw the extraordinary: the way for my heroine to finally tell her story.