Monday, March 2, 2020

What is it about?

The most natural question to ask an author about their new book is: "What is it about?"

That question makes total sense. Of course someone wants to know what something's about in order to decide if it would interest them. It's a great question.

And I am hopelessly bad at answering it.

The pain starts with having to write a synopsis when you try to submit your book anywhere. My knee jerk reaction is always, "If I could tell this story in a page, I wouldn't have bothered to write a whole novel!" And reducing a story down to its simple plot line doesn't capture anything relevant. If you handed the same synopsis to Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and Ann Patchett, and asked each of them to expand it into a book, you'd get three completely different novels. So what does summing it up even tell us?

And yet, there are genres that don't hold my attention, or subjects I don't really want to spend time with, so I get why it's necessary. I need to be able to talk to people about my writing in a way that lets them know if my book is something they would enjoy.

Here is my attempt to do that with Just Friends, Just War. And instead of pitching the story particularly, I want to share some thoughts about what was knocking around my head when I wrote and revised it, and explain the kinds of questions I was hoping it could address.

My second novel is called Seducing Cat, which many people were reluctant to pick up because when they asked, "What is it about?" I usually answered, "A woman who has an affair."

It's about much more than that. It's about temptation and how we define ourselves and where the line is between living your life to the fullest and behaving selfishly. But I can never think to say that when someone asks me in person what that book is about, usually because I'm like a deer caught in headlights where the whole book and all of its nuances flash before my eyes and it's too much for me to reduce to a single sentence. (It's a little like when someone asks, "How are you?" and your choices are to lay out all of the joys and traumas and your existential crisis of the moment, or just say, "Fine." Most of us only have time for "Fine.")

In any case, Seducing Cat was about two people who were together who probably shouldn't have been. I decided as a launching point for my next book, I wanted to spend time with two people who were not a couple, but that others would think should be. That's where Just Friends, Just War began.

When I write, I start with the characters, and make sure I understand them well before I begin putting them into different situations. I came up with Alex and Claire.

I wanted them to be different, but compatible. I thought about political discussions I'd had with various people back in college--people I liked, but disagreed with. I thought about the kinds of lines we draw when we disagree with people, particularly about politics. Some opinions you can let slide because they are simply different. Others make you question someone's morals or character. I find those lines interesting.

I wanted Claire to be strong, and Alex to be stubborn. I wanted their attachment to each other to be obvious, but not something that needed to be said in words to one another. If I wrote them right, I wanted readers to go back and forth between liking Alex a lot, and not liking him much, and to sometimes be uncomfortable about what to do with that. I wanted people to go back and forth between admiring Claire, and not always understanding her.

Once I had the personalities of my main characters fleshed out, I needed a setting. I decided to draw on my experiences in a dojo where I'd spent a few years.

My husband and I got our black belts together at the Futen Dojo in Milwaukee, and our sensei there literally turned my notes on doing techniques into a book for students to use. I was not particularly good at jujutsu, but I loved it, and was sad when I started having children that there was no more time for it. I stopped going when I was about four months pregnant with my first baby and couldn't tie my gi closed anymore. By having a dojo be central to the characters and their story, it was a way of reflecting on all the hours I'd spent in that space, and getting to relive some of it again. My characters meet in a dojo and it becomes an important element of their relationship.

Back when I wrote the draft for this book, I was also bracing for my husband to be deployed at any minute. He was in the Army Reserve, and that's a perspective on war that doesn't get portrayed often. By having Alex involved in the same kind of units my husband worked with, I was able to learn a little more about his military experiences while adding details to my character's story. Just Friends, Just War was also a way for me to grapple with my own fears about what deployment would mean to my family when it happened to us.

The power and nature of different friendships interest me. It wasn't until I started writing this book that I realized I was unusual at the time for having so many friends of the opposite sex. I talked to several women in particular who had never had a male friend, aside from someone they interacted with as part of a couple. It would never occur to them to get together with just the guy, and for me it's not an issue at all. I think that dynamic has changed somewhat in recent years, and my children don't think it's strange for people of the opposite sex (or different gender identity, or sexual orientation--not visible options when I was growing up) to be friends.

Likewise, I'm also interested in how your sex matters in different situations. People's expectations of themselves and others can be deeply rooted in their sex, and that topic never bores me. Alex and Claire were good vehicles for comparing and contrasting in what ways being male or female mattered to who they were, how they were treated in the world, and who they could be to each other.

This book spans over a decade of Claire and Alex's relationship, so it begins back in 1995. I had fun researching any time markers in the book in terms of technology, what songs were playing in a particular year, when certain episodes of TV shows were on, and what commercials would have been common. My favorite inclusion was an ad for 1-800-COLLECT, not just because I remember that commercial playing incessantly, but it really dates the time period back when "long distance" was a concern when making a phone call. (I tried to explain to my kids about how when I was young, we had to wait until after "business hours" for the long distance rates to drop low enough we could call someone out of state. They didn't seem to understand how that was a thing.)

And finally, I wanted by the end of this book for the reader to feel the weight of time and experience in terms of how relationships are built. When you've simply known someone long enough, mundane things become meaningful, and shared memories become like legend and lore. By the last few pages, every line should have meaning that it couldn't in the beginning. Because you've walked through so much with them, the weight of each object and gesture should be almost palpable. Alex and Claire should feel like your friends, too.

My new novel is Just Friends, Just War.

What is it about? Friendship, relationships, love, war, sacrifice, and martial arts.

I worked hard on it. It's good. You'll like it, and I believe the characters will stay with you for some time. Find your copy here, or better yet, come get one at Boswell Book Company on April 1st at 7:00pm when I do my reading and book signing--support a great independent bookstore and snack on homemade cream puffs. (Hope to see you there!)