How could you not be fascinated in someone who was considered for the lead role in The Exorcist when she was a child? I'm thrilled to have Kathleen McCleary here. The author of HOUSE AND HOME and A SIMPLE THING, Kathleen's newest and most wonderful novel, LEAVING HAVEN, explores the thorny bonds of love, marriage, loyalty and parenthood--and the book is a stunner. Kathleen's written an essay about her creative process. Thank you, Kathleen!
I started writing fiction a decade ago, people often ask the same questions: 1.) “What do you do with all your advance money?” (A: “Not what you think, because it’s not that much”) 2.) “How long does it take to write a novel?” (A: “As long as it takes”) and 3.) “Where do you get your ideas?”
The third is the stumper. The ideas come, and sometimes they come more easily than others. But now that I’m on my fourth book, I know more: the ideas come from what I feel most passionately about, the things I have to talk about.
Nine years ago I moved from Oregon to Virginia and had to sell a house I loved with all my heart. It was the first house I owned, the house I brought my babies home to, the house I wanted to live in forever. Leaving it was so painful that for months afterward sentences kept running through my brain, sentences describing every nook and cranny of my beloved house. Then this: “And it was because of all this history with the house, all the parts of her life unfolding there day after day for so many years, that Ellen decided to burn it down.”
I didn’t burn down my old house. And I didn’t know the fictional Ellen—yet. But I knew she loved her house and couldn’t stand to give it up, and I missed my house and I missed Oregon and I could write about it with genuine emotion. That emotion led to a finished novel, something I had not imagined I could do.
Even as I wrote my first book, I was navigating the crazy seas of adolescence with my daughters, feeling besieged by Victoria’s Secret panties proclaiming “feeling lucky” and “unwrap me” and the faceless cruelty of teenage texts and tweets and the not-a-minute-to-breathe schedules. Some days I wished I could whisk them off to an island, far away from all that. I wrote a novel about a woman who does exactly that.
Writing what you love is much more compelling than writing what you know. Ideas come from passion, and passion puts your butt in the chair again and again and again. Passion sees you through crappy first drafts and dead ends and long periods of frustration because you love your story and you can’t not tell it.
Sometimes it’s not even the topic you love; it’s the emotion behind the topic. A few years ago my agent said, “If I ever wrote a novel, I’d open it with a woman giving birth and then walking out of the hospital and leaving her baby behind.” I had little interest in writing about babies or mothering and I didn’t think at all about what she’d said until, three or four months later, my husband and I were driving to the grocery store and all at once, I knew. I knew why she left her baby.
The novel that came to me does open with a woman leaving her baby. But it’s not really a novel about babies. It’s about longing for a baby and fearing you’ll never have one—something I had experienced. It’s about making terrible choices and big mistakes and yet feeling compassion for yourself and others who make terrible choices and big mistakes. It’s about integrity, about being whole.
It’s about things I love so much I had to talk about them.
Visit me at www.kathleenmccleary.com.