WRITERS ON WRITING; After Two Decades, Returning to the Character Who Started It All

Write about what you know: like me in the mid-70’s, Judith Singer, the hero of that book, was a suburban housewife with two young children, a husband who commuted into the grown-up world of Manhattan and a passion for murder mysteries. I merely devoured them, four or five a week, clearly an unwholesome number; Judith, on the other hand, wanted to solve them.

Continue reading...

The Inspiration for As Husbands Go

She began as someone for whom bravery was defined as electing to wear wide-leg pants in a season of skinny crops.  Was there a way for such a woman not only to think courageously, but to act it? Or was it simply too late?

I’ve got a license to daydream.  Being a novelist is the adult version of a kid creating a make-believe world.  But unlike a child, a writer of fiction has to come up with a structured story, one that has as much meaning for others as it has for her.

There is no “right” way to begin a novel, but for me, plot has to wait.  The  character comes first.  Some new person comes strolling into my head asking I write his or her story.  If I ignore them they insist.  If I mutter, I don’t think so, even the quietest ones get pushy: Just do it!  They’re convinced they picked the right writer for the job and they don’t like resistance.

I guess I picked them too — no matter who they are or how unlikely a character-author pair we seem at first.  Slowly, we form a working relationship.  They begin to confide in me.  I listen, ask questions.  Gradually, it becomes a conversation that continues throughout the writing of their (fictional) memoir.

Having said all that, As Husbands Go didn’t happen that way.  The would-be protagonist who came striding into my consciousness made me want to plead with her For God’s sake, find some other novelist!  But I couldn’t whip up the courage because – I’m almost embarrassed to say it – this new, ultra-cool character in my head was too intimidating to challenge.

Not that she seemed hostile, loathsome, or even unlikeable.  In fact, she was the 2010 version of the American dream, female division: devoted mother (of four-year-old triplets, no less), loving wife.  She had a successful, non-husband-threatening career as a floral designer, along with great looks and enviable body.  Money was no problem.  Oh, and she had sublime taste. She stirred up every idiotic insecurity I’d experienced between sixth grade and my fiftieth birthday.  Looking at her, my mind’s eye flickered uneasily.  Talk about statuesque!  I noted her height and model-sleekness were enhanced by Jean Paul Gaultier jeans and Louboutin stilettos.  My normal protection against such blatant elegance would have been to embrace the Me=Genuine, She=Superficial defense, which allows me to congratulate myself for not being the sort who’d spend eight hundred dollars for shoes.

What kept me interested in her was a puzzlement.  Why was some empty suit (albeit a Prada) bothering me?  I was a novelist, after all, not a stylist.  And why did I need her?  Did I want to spend the next two years growing progressively wearier of her ‘tude, sublime appearance, and overt self-confidence?  How could I explore the depths of a character when there seemed to be only shallowness?

Still, she got me wondering (not for the first time) what it must be like to be able to get along on your looks.  Is it a perpetual high?  Do women like this character merely glide through life, never experiencing the rough patches necessary for developing moral fiber?  Were the people she charmed so preoccupied with her surface that they never challenged her ideas or values — letting her remain an exquisitely wrapped but empty package?  Or were beautiful people no different from everybody else – aside from being capable of finding pleasure when shopping for bathing suits?

Our culture now places more emphasis on the visual than ever before. I needed to check out whether our greater than ever fascination with beauty, fashion, celebrity — style in general — keeps us from looking below the surface.

In case you’re wondering, my being intrigued and somewhat daunted by this character did not arise from some lifelong I look like Quasimodo with a wig anguish.  I’m okay.  Nevertheless, “gorgeous” would never appear on any Top 10 List of Adjectives Most Frequently Applied to Susan Isaacs.  Furthermore, I couldn’t imagine writing a novel about someone who had that “g” word, along with “stunning” and “chic,” on hers.

One microsecond later.  Or maybe it was two weeks.  Hard to tell as my Susan-the-novelist mind often does its work on its own while Susan-the-person carries on with what non-novelists refer to as real life.  However long it really was, when the beaut next appeared in my consciousness, she was no longer someone to be intimidated by or condescended to.  She was clear to me.  Amazingly, I liked her.  (Not that you need to like or even respect your protagonist.  I can’t imagine Dostoevsky thinking, Gee, that Rashkolnikov is a total sweetheart.)

I knew my protagonist’s name was Susan B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten and – surprise! – she was going to show everyone the stuff from which she was made: a lot more than sugar and spice and La Prairie makeup.  I couldn’t wait to write about her.

Best of all, I wasn’t observing her from the outside.  I was inside her head.  Not only was I comfortable in there, I felt at home; Susie and I had undergone that magical author-subject merge.  We’d become one (though not to the point of my being able to wear her clothes).

From the inside looking out, I comprehended what it was like to be self assured and pretty, just a tad away from beautiful: It felt good.  Okay, that sensation was not enough to create a fully-realized protagonist.  But I now understood Susie’s preoccupation with appearances was the key to her inner life.  Her own prettiness and presentation was always a work in progress. The world beyond herself was subject to similar scrutiny.  She’d been born with a sense of order and style.  For me, seeing the world with that artistic eye was so challenging.  I’d never been the sort who instinctively knew which car or chair or abstract expressionist painting had intrinsic worth.  I rarely had the urge to rearrange anyone’s furniture.

What was it like to be supersensitive to fashion, art, or people’s appearance?  I had my own supersensitivity — to nuances in language and behavior — but I wanted to experience the world through the eyes of someone who had the Eye.

After I had that insight into Susie, the rest of the novel fell into place fast.  Her background: She’d been born into a rather boring, mildly depressed family — a swan among ugly ducks.  I could see her growing up in a dreary Brooklyn apartment, yearning for some quality in her life.  Okay, some of that yearning turned into banal social ambition, the desire to be in a position where she could own the lovely things she believed were necessary for fulfillment and status.  But Susie also needed to create beauty for others who didn’t know how.  I got a flash of her arranging roses in a bowl, inhaling their sweetness, getting pleasure from the process as well as the results.  Bingo!  She became a floral designer.

And who would be the man of her dreams?  Jonah Gersten, a plastic surgeon, a man who also had The Eye, the aesthetic sense, as well as the need to make things beautiful.  And since life is never perfect, Susie’s backstory included a struggle with infertility that did have a happy ending: as the novel opens, she and Jonah are the exultant though frazzled parents of four-year-old triplet sons.

Backstory is dandy, but I needed a front story.  I later realized it had been waiting for me from the moment I took on the voice of someone who is all about surfaces.  What would happen when something occurs — something potentially shattering — to demolish a gorgeously-constructed existence? Could Susie face the truth, no matter how awful?  She might be willing, but would she be able to stand up for this truth, fight for herself and her family?  Was there substance beneath the style?

Also, with all the current chatter about values, family and otherwise, few people truly have to put up or shut up.  But here was my protagonist, thirty-five years old, someone who’d never given morality a thought beyond the vague understanding that it has to do with the 10 Commandments (of which, maybe, she could recite 5).  Facing what might be a major injustice – the wrong person being convicted of a crime – could she act?  Was it even her responsibility, considering that all the authorities considered the prosecutor’s case a slam-dunk?  Can someone whose lifetime thinking about morality probably totaled two minutes develop a sense of ethics, along with the courage to actually do the right thing?

So that’s how I began.  I joined with my new companion, Susan B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, saw through her eyes, thought her thoughts, comprehended all she was up against.  Now I could finally do what she’d asked of me: set down her story.

The Inspiration for Past Perfect

Before I wrote Past Perfect, some random ideas were floating around in my head. The first was what a tight grip the past has on the present. For so many of us, a long-ago relationship (a lost love, a callous parent) or an event that happened years earlier (getting fired, being the victim of an unjust accusation) still has so much power in our lives. Friends advise, “You’re thirty/fifty/eighty. Get over it.” Yet we can’t.

Another idea: Like so many other Americans, I was thinking about Iraq. How did we get it so wrong? More specifically, How did the CIA, an agency filled with supposedly smart people, make such bad calls? In Shining Through, which was set in New York, Washington, and Berlin during World War II, I’d written about America’s spy organization, the OSS [Office of Strategic Services]. The CIA grew out of that group, and I’d read a fair amount about its development – everything from spy novels to books on American foreign policy to memoirs by ex-spooks. So I got to thinking how the Agency had gotten it wrong before: the Bay of Pigs invasion, failing to predict the rapid implosion of East Germany.

And suddenly I had a new novel. Katie Schottland had her dream job in the CIA — and then lost it in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She never learned why she was fired, but the pain of that dismissal still plagued her years later. Sure, she had what most people would say was a great life, but… That’s one of the joys of writing fiction. Disparate ideas meet and suddenly, whammo. It’s like falling in love.

I did the usual library and online research that I always do for my novels. I also spoke with former and current CIA employees. What I didn’t want was yet another Six Days of the Condor-type novel (the movie compressed it to Three Days…), in which the Agency is run by wicked men engaged in nefarious doings. Nor did I want to write about the poor, unfairly maligned, good guys of the Central intelligence Agency.

I wanted to create a real woman who had both weaknesses and guts. That’s how I viewed Katie Schottland of Past Perfect.

The Inspiration for Lily White

Sometimes a character just pops into my head, somewhat clear if not fully formed. That was definitely the case with Judith Singer in Compromising Positions and Steve Brady in Magic Hour. But after I finished my sixth novel (After All These Years), nobody came through that door between my subconscious and my working, writerly brain. Well, so what: I needed a rest. I went about my life thinking my usual random thoughts. And one of those was about the Bible story of Rachel and Leah, two sisters who marry the same man.

I kept asking myself: What did Leah feel about her husband being in love with her younger sister? How come a father was so willing to sell out a daughter? And after Jacob and Rachel were married, what did Leah do with the rest of her life?

I wasn’t interested in writing about these characters and the patriarchal culture in which they lived (as Anita Diamant later did in the fascinating The Red Tent). The relationships and the notion of writing about a modern love triangle appeal to me.

What I set out to do and what actually becomes a novel are often different. By the time I was halfway through the outline, the triangle had become something of a quadrilateral. New themes arose as I began to ponder whether there were any limits to what people were willing to do for love.

That’s when a second narrative seemed necessary. Lily (Lee) White, the Leah in this novel, is a criminal defense lawyer. Her con man client, Norman Torkelson, is accused of murdering the most recent victim of his scam – he loves them and leaves them – taking their money with him. Not only do Norman’s victims fall for him; his accomplice loves him too. Mary, beautiful, stupid, completely amoral (and to me, somewhat touching) will do anything for her man.

I used two different voices in this book: Lee White’s first-person account and then, because Lee would not be open enough to tell the whole story, I decided to have a third-person narrator cut her off every now and then to tell the reader what Lily White could or would not say. The structure amazed and frightened me by turning out to be complex beyond my wildest imaginings. It took a year for me to complete the outline to my satisfaction, but just another year (quick for me) to finish.

The Inspiration for Any Place I Hang My Hat

As novelists tell you any chance we get, writing is a lonely profession. What we do for a living is sit alone in a room and tell ourselves stories. But how did this particular story, Any Place I Hang My Hat, come to be? A couple of months after I’d finished my last novel, I still hadn’t a clue about what to write next. All I sensed was that a woman on the verge of thirty was demanding I tell her story. Day after day I’d go to my computer and stare at the reflection of the Venetian blinds in the pale blankness of my monitor. Suddenly, I began typing as if possessed. Well, I was. Twenty-nine-year-old Amy Lincoln had opened the door and walked in. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Throughout my career, my subconscious has always been my best and only collaborator. While I’m frittering away time staring into nothingness, it is diligent, doing half the work. With this book, it probably did around three-quarters because I was astounded at how much I knew.

The day that my fingers finally made contact with the keyboard, it was clear to me that Amy’s mother had taken a hike shortly before Amy’s first birthday, that her father was in prison more often than out, and that she’d been brought up in a low-income housing project in downtown Manhattan by her father’s mother, Grandma Lil-who worked as a substitute leg waxer at Beauté, a chichi uptown salon. A woman who valued the finer things, including setting a good table, Grandma Lil shoplifted what she felt entitled to. After a day’s work, for example, she’d come home with a plastic-wrapped filet mignon and an Idaho potato in her coat pockets.

As I began the outline that morning, I discovered that Amy had won a scholarship to a New England boarding school when she was fourteen. As a lifelong New Yorker, I knew long before I wrote my first sentence the true distance of Amy’s journey from the Lower East Side to the Upper East Side. It was far greater then four and a half miles.

So, now I had a handle on Amy Lincoln. All I needed now was the substance of the story.

I’d always been fascinated with how quickly Americans climb (and occasionally slide down) the social ladder. Amy might be smart and funny, but as any case worker might have noted, she was also disadvantaged. This was just a starting point for me because I had no desire to write a poor little poor girl novel. By any measure, except maybe her own, Amy Lincoln was a success. After attending the exclusive Ivey-Rush Academy, she further defined herself as a winner by going on to Harvard and the Columbia School of Journalism, her version of the American dream.

Part of that dream (besides the Four Freedoms articulated by FDR) has always been the freedom to be oneself. But what’s the price of our social mobility? When someone climbs so far, where does she truly belong? Yes, Amy fit in everywhere, from the visitors’ room at the Ossining Correctional Facility to a hip Manhattan bar to the offices of the highbrow weekly, In Depth, where she was an associate editor. But where could she finally hang her hat? Was her home any place she made it? Or was there no place at all for someone like her, except alone?

To find out, Amy needs some questions answered. She has to track down the mother who abandoned her when she was ten months old. How much of her mother is in her-and what possible reason was good enough to explain abandoning her baby? What role did the felonious and not-too-bright Lincolns play in her life? Why did her relationship with Mr. Right go so wrong? Oh, and should she pursue the big political scoop that In Depth is far too tasteful to touch.

Excellent: My subconscious and I were all over the outline. Now we just had to write the book.

The Inspiration for After All These Years

Easy to tell. I heard that one of my neighbors, a really nice woman, was heartbroken. It was the old but always heartbreaking story: her husband supposedly “outgrew” her, or at least grew tired of her, and left her for a younger woman. I’d always thought of this man as second-rate and pretentious, never a winning combo in my book. My response to the acquaintance who told me what was going on was, “Wouldn’t you just love to kill him?” So I did.

That’s the fun of being a novelist. The next thing I knew, I had my next character, Rosie Meyers, a high school English teacher, had been dumped. After twenty-five years of marriage, her husband Richie, an ordinary guy who’d become a surprising success, ditched her for an executive he hired for his company. Shortly before their divorce is final, Rosie finds Richie back in the house — lying on the kitchen floor stabbed to death with one of her knives.

I had the character and setup. The story worked itself out with unusual speed. The cops decide it was Rosie who committed the murder. Just as they are about to arrest her, she escapes out of a window, not to run, but to find out who really did it. What a fun opportunity: a bit of local gossip gave me a chance to skewer social climbing suburbanites and happy homemakers, self-important urbanites, tell Rosie’s coming-of-(middle) age story, and serve up a little vengeance on behalf of a most pleasant neighbor.

The Inspiration for Almost Paradise

I had my characters. Nick and Jane, two Wasps. They’d meet in their senior year at Brown. He would be part of an upper-class Manhattan clan, she from a more modest family in Cincinnati, albeit just as dysfunctional, though in a different way. Definitely not from my turf. What was I doing with them, and at an Ivy League college? Wasn’t it the opposite of what writers ought to do? What ever happened to Write about what you know?

Still, they’d come to me as a couple, as they were. I felt I needed to write about how their families (even relatives who had died long before they were born) had gone into forming Nick and Jane. I sensed from the start that they would fall in love. I also realized they would be tested. But it took my own book tour before I could figure out what to do with my two characters.

I would expose them to the modern dream, and also the modern disease, of celebrity. Wasn’t that also writing about what I didn’t know? Well, as far as the Protestant business went, some of my best friends were Wasps. And I lived in what might be considered a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture; in the early 1980s, diversity was celebrated with somewhat less enthusiasm than it is today. As for celebrity, hadn’t I just gotten back from doing readings, autographing books, being photographed and interviewed, even going on TV?

TV. Everybody is entitled to a grandiose fantasy or two, so when I started writing fiction, besides a run-of-the-mill image of me, having signed a seven-book contract, at lunch with my editor), I did fantasize big. There I was, in a glam gown, being unspeakably delightful on the Tonight Show; all over America, people would tell each other And I thought authors were boring. Not Susan Isaacs!

The closest I got to the Tonight Show was Good Morning Cleveland, and instead of being Long Island’s answer to Noel Coward, I came across as, God help me, sincere. When they went to commercial after my segment, the host patted my hand and said, “You’re such a sweet girl.” However, my experience as the most minor of celebrities gave me insight into what happens to people when they get famous, especially in the arts.

It’s odd to be in the middle of your ordinary life, strolling down the aisle of a supermarket, and overhear a stranger whispering, not very softly, to a friend, “That’s her, the writer!”

“Who? Where?” A pause and then “Her?” followed by “What’s her name?”

“Uhhh… It’ll come to me.”

And there were other odd reactions: people who had formerly managed to overlook me now wanted to be my friend; making a reservation at a Hamptons restaurant and getting the grand treatment on arrival; and holding a Swedish meatball on a toothpick for over a half-hour at a cocktail party because I was so busy answering people’s questions that I didn’t have time to eat it.

I took that recognition, the changes in my life, and blew it up into XXL. I didn’t want to write about novelists. But I do love theater and film, so I had Nick and Jane meet in a college production of Hamlet, fall in love and marry. Nick, cool and far less passionate about his art, becomes a huge success – not in the theater, as Jane would have had it, but as a movie star. What would the pressure, hype, privilege, money, and public and private adoration and hostility do to each of them? To their marriage?

Almost Paradise took the longest of any of my novels to write, mostly because I had so much research to do on the generations that came before Nick and Jane and also on what it takes to be an actor. Of course, then I had to sit down and write in such a way that the research wasn’t evident. If you, the reader, can all but see a novelist’s index cards, she hasn’t done the job. Sure, a good writer has to know what she’s talking about in order to make the universe she’s creating feel authentic. But if your reaction is Wow, all that research! Did she work hard! then she’s failed because she’s taking you out of the world of the story. And that’s where you belong.

The Inspiration for Shining Through

Shining Through takes place in the early 1940s. Except for the family history in Almost Paradise, all my earlier books were set in contemporary times. Linda Voss, a legal secretary and protagonist of this novel, came to me almost as I typed the final page of my third book, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with her until I put her into that dangerous, compelling era.

When you grow up in Brooklyn — I guess the same is true for Iowa — you look for significance in your life. As a kid, you yearn not to be ordinary, to have something to call your own. I was born on December 7, 1943, the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor.During World War II, my dad, an electrical engineer, worked on US Harbor defenses. His brother, my uncle Herb, was a B-26 bomber pilot during this time; he flew many missions over Germany, and named his bomber for me: the Little Sue. So I’ve always had a personal stake in that period. And of course, like so many Jews, I realized what might have happened to me had my ancestors not left Hungary, Germany, and Poland to live in the United States.

Another factor was patriotism. The more I studied American history of the late thirties and early forties, the more I realized that America’s entry into the war was a complex and often political process. Still, it was something direct and clean and true about people’s motives during that time. It can fairly be called a battle of good against evil, and we were the good guys.

Why make Linda a war hero and not a gallant home-front girl? Well, my first three novels all have protagonists who are extraordinary, ordinary women, smart and gutsy, who triumphed over some personal obstacle in their lives. At first, I planned to make Shining Through a love story. But then I thought: why not make my heroine a true heroine. There are larger confrontations than defining an overbearing husband were even facing up to and conquering a serious personal problem. Let my Linda, a legal secretary from Queens, rise to the opportunity to do something truly brave. If ordinary men can rise to greatness, why not women? (In Europe, the Resistance movement certainly had many courageous dames.) Early in the novel, Linda gets into a huff and demands, “If men can’t be men, who do they expect to be brave? Women?”

As she discovers, that is precisely the answer.

The Inspiration for Red, White and Blue

When I write, character comes first. This time though, two people came into my head and demanded to be in the same novel. I wasn’t sure why: one was Lauren Miller, a woman in her late 20s from New York, a reporter who hasn’t exactly made it to the top of the journalistic heap; she works for the Jewish News, or, as she reverently calls it, Jew New. The other is FBI Special Agent Charlie Blair from Wyoming. Somehow, these two individuals had to be connected, and not just by meeting and falling in love.

Right around then, I was musing about politics — as I do on occasion. Early in my career, I had done some political speech writing, mostly for Brooklyn and Bronx guys who wanted to sound like JFK. Years later, after I’d become a novelist, I ran into an old pol who asked me what I was doing. I said I was writing fiction. “Hey Sue,” he enthused, “no kidding. You went legit!” I guess so, but I never lost my interest in politics and how government works.

And what doesn’t work: I was too young to be tuned in to what was happening during the McCarthy Era. My only memories are seeing Senator McCarthy standing before a bank of microphones and yapping about something; I thought, Who wants to hear this creep? He’s mean and acting weird. (Later I would learn that that particular kind of weirdness is called “drunk,” which indeed was a condition the honorable gentleman from Wisconsin knew well.) Besides that, I remember my wonderful, savvy Grandma Rosie saying “We don’t like him.” Somehow, I understood “We” were Jews and that somehow this guy was a threat to us and to America.

We? Where did my assimilated family, with our Easter egg dying and family Christmas parties, fit in to America? Well, I did have a more traditional grandmother. Grandma Eva was the chicken soup-making type, though not good chicken soup… imagine salt water with a slight poultry flavor. But in my house, our only religious rule was no slacks on Yom Kippur.

As I got older, the “where do we fit in” question grew into a larger “we.” I grew up in Brooklyn with kids from Irish and Italian and African-American families. What did all of us have to do with the Dick and Jane USA we read about? We all loved this country. We fought for it. As far as my own family went during World War II, my father worked with the Corps of Engineers on US harbor defenses. His brother was a bomber pilot who flew missions over Germany. Grandma Eva’s grandson Teddy was a medic killed in the Battle of the Bulge while trying to save another soldier’s life.

The question arose again when I was an adult. I took my 80-year-old uncle into my backyard to show him my cutting garden and he said, in a mock Yiddish accent, “Oy, a farm.” Later, it got me thinking about how did we, how did all of us coming to America with nothing, get from there to here? All of us: whether your ancestors came on the Mayflower or your parents arrived on a 727. I wanted to understand the process.

I was also thinking about domestic terrorism, like the bombing in Oklahoma City. Being from New York, I naturally celebrate diversity, but I was wondering what do all of us as Americans have in common?

Lauren Miller of the Jewish News wants to understand the thinking of the radical right, the anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic types who don’t believe people like her belong in this country. FBI agent Charlie Blair isn’t interested in understanding as much as in seeing if any federal laws are being broken. He goes undercover, joining the very group in Wyoming that Lauren is investigating. But I wasn’t only interested in their present; I wanted to see where they came from. I felt that in the process of becoming Americans, we’ve lost so much of our history. Most of us don’t have a clue as to the texture of our grandparents or great-grandparents lives.

I knew I could write an intelligence adventure story. I’d done that with Shining Through. But I needed history to give this story meaning. Although they didn’t know it, my New York reporter and my Wyoming FBI agent came from the same root: they are the great-grandchildren of Herschel Blaustein and Dora Schottland, two immigrants who met on a boat on the way to America. What happened after that…well, that’s the novel.

The Inspiration for Magic Hour

This guy wouldn’t leave me alone. He came to me shortly after my second novel. It wasn’t only the question of why a man would want me to write his fictional autobiography, but why this particular man? Steve is a recovering alcoholic, Vietnam veteran, recovering heroin addict, half Protestant, half Catholic homicide cop. Oh, and he grew up on a farm, which isn’t exactly my turf.

However, I do view a character coming into my head as a gift, so I decide to give it a try. I did. I wrote about twenty pages, read them once, twice, three times and thought, in my usual exquisite manner, This stinks. Fortunately, that seemed to exorcise him because two more characters came to me, Jane and Nicholas Cobleigh, and I wrote about them in Almost Paradise.

But when I finished that novel three years later, guess who I discovered was still around? That same guy, Steve Brady, Sergeant Brady of the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Police Department’s homicide squad. This time, I tried to analyze why I hadn’t been able to get him before. It turned out I was too self-conscious writing in first person in a man’s voice, dealing with everything from his love of the New York Yankees (I’m a Mets fan) to his substance abuse and his sexuality.

I told myself that I had grown up and come of age in a male-dominated culture and, unless there was some secret guy handshake I didn’t know about, I knew enough men to write about one. Since my job is writing fiction, and I’d already created a German-speaking spy and patrician Wasp actor, I could do Steve. What I needed to do first, however, was get over my own shortcomings, my fear of doing the unexpected, writing something people might not like.

Growing up female, I had naturally been taught to please. I’m not speaking about putting on makeup and batting my eyes in awe at some man’s brilliance as much as wanting people to approve of me; that meant not taking risks. I contracted the virulent What if they don’t like me bug that attacks so many women. Just the thing a writer can’t afford to suffer from.

So I decided that if I had to please my editor, my publisher, my agent, and the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review, I would have to have a severe multiple personality disorder, because each of them wanted or needed something else. If I had to write to please my readers I had to ask myself who they were: A fellow New Yorker? A housewife in Montana? A Roman Catholic priest in Phoenix? A teenager in Kraków reading a Polish translation? Or – dear God! — my own mother? A novelist has only one person to please: herself. She has to write the story she most wants to read.

Finally, I was able to lose myself in order to write not so much about a real man, but a man who is real.