I’m one of those readers always looking for parallels between protagonists and the writers who create them. The extent to which writers use autobiographical information (or not) interests me. I know writers who take the “write what you know” advice to the extreme and write themselves into the story in a way that almost borders on memoir. I’m not saying this doesn’t make for great fiction: it often does.
Here’s my deal… I spent a lot of years writing poetry. My style was very narrative, very autobiographical, “confession” style poems. A lot of it was pretty dark stuff. And very self centered. I was mining the most difficult periods of my own life for material, going back and reliving them, and doing my best to turn these moments into art.
So when I turned to fiction, the last thing I wanted to do was write about myself. I found it incredibly freeing to just make stuff up. To leave myself behind and enter this whole other world where anything goes. I was sick to death of the me, me, me world that had been my poetry. I wanted to inhabit someone else’s nightmares, broken love affairs and strange afflictions.
The protagonist of Promise Not To Tell, Kate Cypher, is clearly not me. I’m not a school nurse. I didn’t grow up on a commune. My best friend wasn’t murdered. There are a few things Kate and I do have in common: we’re ex-smokers who occasionally relapse; we need coffee to function; we have what some would consider a slightly dark sense of humor; we’re close in age (though back when I started the first draft of this book, 41 seemed old and far away — now it’s not nearly so far.); we are both haunted, one way or another, by our childhoods.
But the ways we differ outnumber our similarities: Other than the occasional cigarette and glass of bourbon, Kate is a bit of a health nut—she watches what she eats and jogs. I, on the other hand, am eating homemade chocolate truffles as I write this post and the only exercise I’ve gotten so far today is chasing my daughter through the grocery store. She’s straight, I’m a lesbian. But perhaps the biggest difference between the two of us, the one crucial to Kate’s story, is that she is a natural born skeptic. Me, I consult a pendulum and Ouija board when making major life decisions. When Kate is confronted with the possibility that her best friend, who was brutally murdered in childhood, has come back as a vengeful little girl ghost, Kate refuses to believe. She lives in a carefully ordered world of science and reason. If something goes bump in the night, it’s no doubt a branch on the window, not a visit from the other side. She is constantly finding rational explanations for things.
Me, I want the not so rational ones. If I hear a bump in the night, I immediately start wondering which terrible thing it could be: ghost, demon or serial killer?
Kate, with her logical problem-solving, makes a reliable narrator. I, on the other hand, am not so reliable. Kate is a skeptic. A scientist. I am a flake. If it had been me in her shoes, I would have been having séances, pulling out the Ouija board, trying to make peace with the spirit world. And you know what? To make matters worse, the Kate-as-Jennifer character probably would have mined the whole experience for a poem or two. Egad!