Uh oh. Now Sophie Littlefield has gone and done it. She has revealed, in her Big Idea piece for her latest novel The Missing Place, what sort of disreputable persons writers truly are! And she does it through a piece of jewelry!
I often wear a small charm on a chain around my neck. You’ve seen the sort—a little silver ring inscribed with inspirational snippets like “Faith Friends Family.” Except that mine reads “Lie Cheat Steal.” At first it simply amused me, a secret antidote to the occasional tedium of everyday life, but over the years I have come to realize that it is in fact an apt motto for an author. Lying, of course, is the taproot of fiction; but cheating and stealing are its inevitable outgrowths. The authors I admire are thieves of the telling detail, stealing the look in a lover’s eye or the set of a pugnacious jaw, and the best inveigle their way so deeply and artfully into human interactions that their victims may never know what has been taken from them.
I went to Williston, North Dakota in January, 2013 to do research for THE MISSING PLACE, which is set in an oil boom town. I arrived on a small, trembling prop plane. Rented the only car available: dirty, outfitted with a cracked windshield and someone else’s fast food wrappers, with no snow tires on the eve of a major storm. Stopped at a truck stop for lunch; walked to my table under the gaze of thirty men dressed for hard labor and one harried waitress in a pink flannel shirt and a ponytail. Ate my scrambled eggs, watched and listened, and took notes.
“young guys beards, old guys shave”
“Wrangler Levis no upscale brand”
“smell—Aramis/cigarette smoke/rubber?/creosote?/coffee/cleaner, not Windex—industrial?”
“real butter not margarine—melted/re-refrigerated”
“easy listening, Eminem cover (???)”
I hunched over my notebook, not wanting anyone to see what I was doing. There is, for me, a keen sense of shame at being caught spying, because that’s what the early moments of a novel’s creation feel like to me: illicit, invasive, even assaultive. I steal from people—I steal their details, the tiniest pieces of them.
In the movie “Trading Places,” Eddie Murphy explains to Dan Akroyd that he can make a fortune by skimming pennies from financial accounts that contain huge sums of money. It will never be missed, he points out—it’s a virtually victimless crime. Observing people, perhaps, might be viewed the same way: the characters that eventually populate my books were not stolen whole cloth; I can say with confidence that no real person has ever been written into one of my books. But every character is stitched from stolen parts, like scarecrows made from rags of unknown provenance.
Maybe a better analogy is the nests that male bowerbirds, attempting to attract mates, create from anything they can lay their beaks on: leaves and flowers but also bits of cloths and stones and coins and plastic bottle caps and nails and even rifle shells. Anything, in other words, to get the job done—and all of it stolen.
A bird, however, is innocent; a bird simply fulfills its avian purpose, that for which the Creator destined it. An author is different. She is the outlier, possessor of the poisoned gene: normal people interact, attract and repel, but authors cannot leave well enough alone. Conversations overheard become stories germinated. Ordinary people become villains, victims, lovers; subtle clues convince the author they are gifted, misunderstood, endangered, celebrated, feared, doomed.
So I watch and listen and spy; I pilfer and plunder, appropriate and confiscate. You, friend from my past, did that scene between twelve-year-olds not trigger a memory? Or you, from that mortifying OKCupid date when we couldn’t find a single thing to talk about, didn’t you see yourself in the mirror of that fictional hotel room? And you most of all, perhaps, my former spouse, don’t you see yourself in every love story, every breakup and every murder? (I leave you clues, you know; if you read carefully you’ll recognize a shirt I bought you in Chicago or that fender-bender the day after you drove the Camry off the lot.)
A dozen books into my career, I recognize certain facts. One is that you can get away with a lot. Another is that you can get away with almost nothing. The latter refers to the fact that no matter what a critic praises you for, another will excoriate you for the same thing. The former is more interesting: when I take liberties, I’ve learned I’ll rarely be caught, whether it’s a historical inaccuracy or a stolen identity. Perhaps this is because a devoted reader invests the storyteller with her trust at the outset , trading skepticism for full immersion. The more skillfully the author describes, the more easily the reader overlooks the sleight-of-pen. Verisimilitude is more than enough, especially when truth—well, unvarnished truth can be mightily dull, which is why we choose fiction in the first place.
So I scribble on, stealing from you the things you won’t miss—the fake smile that disappeared from your face the second your husband turned away; the muttered threat when you squeezed your child’s arm in Target; that glance you gave the ass of the girl who could be your granddaughter. But also that cheap little cross you wear on a chain that slips over all your tattoos, the little tug you gave your teenaged daughter’s top when she wasn’t looking, the way you weren’t going to let anyone see how those Payless heels were killing your feet as you turned in your job application at the Petco.
All of it, snatched and spirited away and woven together, like the shiny objects in the bowerbird’s nest—to attract you, my dear reader. Like a kleptomaniac, I can’t stop; I’ll keep trying to catch your eye with my stories, to make you wander close. Lying, cheating, stealing: whatever it takes.