The Big Idea: Sophie Littlefield
Posted on October 14, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
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.
The Missing Place: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.
This is just lovely. Thank you for your wonderful insight.
As Bruce Springsteen sang, “I’m a thief in the house of love, and I can’t be trusted.”
I love this book cover, great job.
What lovely writing.
About “taking liberties;” as a reader, once the writer has sucked me in with a compelling character and an intriguing story, I’m usually willing to let a few things slide.
Interesting, but the movie reference is way off; the penny-stealing scheme is from Office Space, with Samir explaining it to Peter. The scheme in Trading Places involves taking secret information about the orange harvest the Dukes had obtained illegally and replacing it with a fake report showing the opposite, so they could cash in on the futures market by predicting it correctly while the Dukes went bankrupt predicting it completely wrong–and there were plenty of victims.
I think “Office Space” nicked it from “Superman III”, if we’re playing that game.
I wonder why the cover does not have the author’s name on it.
First, the bit about fractions of a penny may have been used in movies, but it actually happened. I heard about it in a COBOL (that’s a computer language) class around 1979, and it happened in a bank, which no one ever named. The guy was fired was all we heard.
Second, no, fiction authors are *not* liars.
Many years ago, before I started working professionally, I was a library page, and another page I worked with was black woman (who had her batchelor’s, I think, in microbiollogy, but was going for another degree, because she couldn’t get a job in it with “only” a batchelors’….). One day, she asked me what I was reading all the time. I told her mostly science fiction and fantasy.
She replied, “Fiction – that’s like lies, right?”
I was so taken aback it took me three days to come up with an answer, which was, “No. A lie is where you represent something you know to be false as true. Fiction, even though it may tell truths, presents itself as false.”
Yep.. the Trading Places scam was falsifying the FCOJ futures and tricking the Dukes into buying high and selling low.
Really interesting take on things.
Having spent years in North Dakota (not far from Williston) I think I need to look for this book!
Interesting essay about the writing process.
But it leaves me wondering: what is the book about?
Wow. I want that charm.
Like the ‘lie cheat steal’ thing. Writing short articles about fishing I always did that ;-)
For an interesting look at the oil boom –
This, right here is why I want to read this book:
“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.”
God, that’s beautiful.
Oh dear Sophie, you went to Williston. As someone who lives less than an hour from the fiendish den of iniquity I am glad you made it out with your sanity and sense of humor.
I argue that had a man done the same thing and gathered research at a place known to have a skewed demographic towards the female gender and quietly sat taking notes on the physical appearance of 30 women as this female author has, the male would have been considered to be engaged in predatory behavior. Further, many of the observations made seem supercilious and arrogant, as if “Wow, I’ve finally found the poor workers struggling for their meager pennies and they even have an odor, this is some legitimate detail I could have never found in the better neighborhood where I live!” The assumptive rational that lying, cheating, and stealing is cute and okay if one is a woman and that somehow her edgy dialectic allows her to have an advanced opinion on people working to support their families is completely telling of an attitude which may not be as appropriate or enjoyable to the reader as the author thinks. I know a lot of edgy strippers who believe themselves just as crafty, I don’t want to read their books either.