I was the guest of a book club this week, the tenth I’ve visited on behalf of This Hidden Thing. Like the nine previous, it was a very enjoyable and stimulating experience. It’s one of the easier tasks of a writer’s life: you show up, answer questions, listen with appreciation and sometimes surprise to what your work has loosed in others, eat great food, and return to your work encouraged.
One of the questions I get most often is “What’s the origin of this book?” or its variation, “Where do you get your ideas?” I really should have a more fluent and coherent answer figured out by now, but I usually fumble around with a whole bunch of things that threw themselves into the mix — like a wish to feature Winnipeg (my home city), an interest in the notion of secrets, and my research in Mennonite history.There’s a short answer too: it’s not the story of anyone I know. The disclaimer “this is a work of fiction” among the data at the front of the book isn’t just there for appearances. I may also note that, at some point, a character or an incident, something like a starting block, lands in my head and may begin to act as a magnet for other characters and incidents. Sometimes I probably make the process sound more deliberate and calculating than it really is, as if I’m a fiction engineer. At other times, I probably make it seem hopelessly airy-fairy, as if I write in a trance.
Since this week’s group is still fresh in my mind, I feel like I should add another piece to the “origins/ideas” answer. What an interesting, beautiful group of women! I see them again, in the circle by the fire — E, L, A, D, P, T, M. And the stories that emerged in our conversation!
Reading gives us bits of our own lives, and in talking about what we have read, we share these stories even as we consider the stories of the book. Since family and secrets are themes of my novel, this evening’s discussion brought out the most incredible other characters and events. Real life really does trump fiction. In book clubs where people have been together long enough to form strong bonds of knowing and affection, such as I sensed at this one, there is a confessional dynamic to the conversation as well.
I don’t borrow from people I meet at evenings like this for my writing, certainly not consciously. (I want that to be clear!) Not only would that inhibit discussion, it would betray trust. But there are things that are given me indirectly. I find the rich diversity of being human and life with others confirmed. I think that gestures, words, impressions are deposited in my mind. These details may be “forgotten” but build into a store of knowledge.
More important are the truths that emerge beneath the specifics of the stories we share. Truths of emotion, belief, will, intuition, and body. Back at the mostly solitary act of writing, they are like anonymous tips that help me crack the mysteries of my projects-in-progress. Being with the book club was a rich slice of real life that inspires my work.