I’m writing from my tiny office at my home near the beach in San Francisco, where we’re enjoying a splendidly warm and balmy October–a great relief after the cold, foggy months of summer.Thanks to the women of The Debutante Ball for inviting me over!
With my third novel, I set out to write a book about sisters, and about storytelling. I was inspired by the first line of Graham Greene’s wonderful novel, THE END OF THE AFFAIR: “A story has no beginning and no end. Arbitrarily one chooses the moment of experience from which to look backward or from which to look ahead.” I copied that line into my notebook when I began writing the novel, and I kept coming back to it over the next few months. The questions that were always in my mind were, how do we tell our own stories? How do the stories that we invent for ourselves, and those that others tell about us, impact the course of our lives?
No One You Know is narrated by Ellie Enderlin, a coffee buyer from San Francisco. Ellie’s sister Lila, a math prodigy at Stanford, was murdered two decades before, and her sister’s death has haunted Ellie for her entire adult life. The book opens in an out-of-the-way café in a small village in Nicaragua, where Ellie comes face to face with a man from her past named Peter McConnell. Many years ago, McConnell was implicated in her sister’s death in a sensational, best-selling true crime book. This meeting sets Ellie on a journey to discover the truth, to rewrite her sister’s story, as well as her own.
While the novel is, at heart, about sisterhood and storytelling, I ended up doing a lot of research into the fields of coffee and mathematics, in order to better understand the characters. One of the questions I hear most often from readers is, “Why coffee? Why math?”
I’ve been rather obsessed with coffee for a long time. I drink it every morning, religiously. It has been a ritual since my college days–the morning cup of coffee to clear the cobwebs in my brain before I begin my day. Making Ellie a coffee buyer gave me a chance to explore coffee’s origins, some of the interesting stories behind it. It also gave me an excuse to attend cuppings, tour a coffee warehouse, and hang out in cafes in the middle of the day. That part of my research was sheer pleasure!
Math is another matter. I have nightmares to this day of walking into a university math class at the end of the semester, on the day of the final examinations, having never attended a single class. While writing about coffee was a way of indulging my passion, writing about math may have been a way of tackling my demons. I also thought it would be an interesting contrast between the sisters–Ellie the coffee buyer, who experiences the world through her senses, and Lila the math prodigy, who experienced the world through her intellect. While I definitely didn’t want the novel to hinge too much on mathematical esoterica, I did want the flavor of mathematics to be part of the book. The narrator is as math-phobic as I am, but she is able to appreciate some of the stories behind mathematics with a layperson’s eye. I have always been drawn to “found texts” in fiction, so it was great fun for me to have Ellie come across Lila’s math notebook from her days at Stanford.
I guess the main reason I delve into things I know little about in my books is that the research, for me, makes writing a lot more fun. I like to learn something while I’m writing a book, just as I like to learn something unexpected from the books I read. While writing The Year of Fog, I learned a lot about memory. For my next novel, which I’ve just started writing, the narrator is a doctor, so I certainly have my work cut out for me!
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