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.