The Big Idea: Amanda Jayatissa
Ideas come out of anywhere, and for Amanda Jayatissa, the motivating spark of the novel My Sweet Girl came out of being really, really, really annoyed. Hey, whatever works. Here’s Jayatissa to fill you in on the circumstances and what came out of that moment.
If there’s anything this blog has shown me, it’s that big ideas often lurk in the unlikeliest of places. They are sparked by things people have said years ago, inside jokes, thoughts that wriggle their way into your mind and don’t leave you alone. If you’re lucky, that spark will come from something wondrous. If your luck is of a more complex nature, sometimes that spark comes from something unfortunate. As unfortunate as astoundingly poor customer service at a bank.
I was in a bad mood already. I couldn’t help it. I was trudging my way through a disastrous WIP and my dissatisfaction with it colored pretty much everything else in my life at the time. I had woken up late, not had my coffee, was behind on a million mundane tasks, and here was this customer service agent telling me that they’ve “misplaced” my paperwork (again).
Of course, I didn’t make a fuss. I hadn’t been trained my entire life to be anything less than a picture of understanding. I ranted and raged inside my head while I made my way to my favorite coffee shop, and (finally caffeinated) did what most writers would do— I pulled out a notebook and pen and really ripped that customer service agent to shreds. Things I would never say out loud, some things I never even let myself think, were bubbling up to the surface. And after a while of this— my big idea— I was having a blast being angry. Which is how my main character, Paloma, was born.
My old WIP forgotten, I dived into this new voice I had found. A voice where I gave myself permission to think angry thoughts. To give myself a lens to look through situations that I faced myself when I lived in the US, where much like Paloma, I had to wear the mask of the polite, well-mannered model minority, trying not to take up too much space with my big feelings in the white spaces I had been trying to navigate.
And then, the next spark. Most of the thrillers I had read at the time (and I had read many, many of them) didn’t have a protagonist who was like me. Sure, they were mostly women, mostly in their 30s, and always racing against some sinister force before time ran out, but they were always white. And just like Paloma being brown impacted her story, these heroines being white impacted theirs. There was nothing wrong with their experiences. There were just other stories to tell also.
It took me a moment to make my peace with it. That this biting, sassy, layered woman had a story worth telling. That she was fully realized enough to be the Main Character in her story, not just a token exotic beauty, or (shudder) math geek that most brown women play.
Then, what I suppose was the biggest spark of all. It was okay that Paloma wasn’t likable. She didn’t have to do what every other brown woman navigating a white space felt compelled to do and conform to a set of ever-changing rules. Paloma didn’t feel bad for thinking the way she did or for her behavior. She was done with being a model minority. She was ready to step out into the world and take charge of her life. And so was I.
I often get asked if Paloma is me. The answer is no. Probably thanks to years of practicing yoga and a very understanding husband, I don’t have that much anger pent up inside me (until my next visit to the bank, that is). The more honest answer is that my love of green-goddess smoothies and mom jeans makes me exactly the kind of person Paloma would make fun of in her head.
Sometimes it can take a few sparks to ignite a big idea. Sometimes, a big idea can be born out of being really, really pissed off.