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Pieces of me

Nicholson Baker has a new book, a non-fiction piece about World War II entitled Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. I heard him speak about it and other topics on a recent New York Public Library podcast. He said something interesting during the talk, which I have since fallen in love with. When asked if a viewpoint in his latest book represents his own, Baker said that as a novelist, you “…take little pieces of yourself and grow them artificially.”

I couldn’t agree more.

When friends began reading the first drafts of Something Missing, the question most often asked was if I had engaged in the kind of thievery that the book describes. Some of Elysha’s family members even took her aside and asked if I was a thief before meeting her.

While the answer is sadly no, certain parts of Martin’s character come directly from me, though I did not realize it then. As I was writing the book, I was in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from an armed robbery more than a decade ago. The robbery left me with constant, reoccurring nightmares and other symptoms I did not understand until I spoke to a therapist.

My propensity to plan.

The ease to which I am startled.

My need to identify all exits in a building before feeling safe.

The ritual of analyzing alternatives to almost any situation.

My desire to sit facing the door of a restaurant whenever possible.

As the therapy and the book progressed, it became clear that Martin’s methodical, cautious, thoughtful nature was a piece of me, a part of myself that I was unconsciously expressing in words. After hearing about Martin and his story in one of our sessions, my therapist brought this to my attention. When I finished outlining the book, he asked, “Where did you get the name, Martin?”

“I don’t know. It just came to me.”

“You realize,” he said, “that you couldn’t have found a name closer to your own if you had tried.”

Ironically, I hadn’t.

Since then, I have come to find parts of myself in many of my characters, and this newfound awareness has helped me to empathize and embrace some of my less-than-savory characters. In my current manuscript, Milo, my protagonist, recently encountered a man named Louis, who is a bit of a hedonist. While Louis and I have little in common regarding appearance, behavior, or lifestyle, Louis’s hedonism comes from a belief that he and I share regarding the nature of individuality and normalcy as it relates to society. We share a common belief, but we choose to express that belief in divergent ways. A science fiction fan might think of Louis as a bizarre and misguided version of me from some alternate universe.

But the fact remains: Louis, Martin, Milo, and most of my characters are pieces of me, grown artificially, as Nicholson Baker so eloquently stated.