HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, yes, yes, indeed. I know they say every first book is autobiographical, and yeah, sure, you're going to draw on the low-hanging emotional fruit a bit. But we write who we are, and that's a good thing.
Still, trust me, that doesn't mean that every single person isn't going to ask you, no matter how many books you write--is the main character YOU?
And that can be sweet, and even a compliment. But not so much when you write twisty psychological thrillers. Just ask the wonderful Michele Campbell, whose brand new She Was The Quiet One is burning up the must-read lists. It's also eliciting one persistent question.
The Answer is No
I write fiction, yet sometimes I get the feeling that readers assume every word is true.
I’ve often been asked whether a fictional scene in a book happened to me in real life. That’s pretty awkward given the types of books I write -- full of secrets, lies, infidelity and murder. But I recently had an even more unnerving experience, in which a woman I knew seemed to believe I’d used her life for material in my book, when I hadn’t.
One of the three main characters in my first thriller, It’s Always the Husband, is a yoga teacher married to a doctor who cheats on her with a nurse. There’s nothing new under the sun about a doctor/nurse affair. The most popular soap opera of our time is called “General Hospital” for a reason.
But one evening as I spoke to a book club in my hometown, the hostess blurted out her belief that these characters were based on her and her husband. Her ex-husband was a doctor who’d cheated on her with a nurse, you see, and I’d known that. Well, my jaw hit the floor. How do you tell someone that you don’t think about them enough to base a character on them? How do you tell them that their most intimate problems are hardly unique? I just said no and moved on to the next question.
But as I wrote my new book, She Was the Quiet One, I couldn’t shake that incident from my mind. I’d been wanting to write a book with a boarding-school setting forever, having gone to one myself. Yet I worried that people would read about a brutal murder at a boarding school, and assume it was based on goings-on at the school I attended.
She Was the Quiet One is the story of fifteen-year-old twins who are sent away to school after their parents die. For studious Rose, enrolling at Odell Academy is the opportunity of a lifetime. But for vulnerable Bel, Odell is a place of temptation and danger. Bel falls in with a clique of wild rich kids that leads her astray. And she falls victim to a charismatic English teacher whose weaknesses put her at grave risk.
The relationship between Bel and Heath Donovan, the English teacher, is the most controversial aspect of She Was the Quiet One. At my alma mater, the vast majority of teachers were honorable and dedicated. But sometimes rumors circulated of inappropriately close relationships between teachers and students. Those rumors were not the basis for my book, nor is that scenario unique to my school.
In recent months, one famous prep school after another has faced claims of sexual abuse of students by teachers or staff, with reports of abuse stretching back decades. Such storied schools as Exeter, Andover, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Deerfield, Milton Academy, Hotchkiss and St. George’s have faced such reports, along with my own alma mater.
My book isn’t about any of those schools, or the things that happened at them. It’s about the fictional murder of a fictional girl who was having a fictional relationship with her fictional teacher at a fictional boarding school.
But somebody somewhere will probably assume that this is about people at the school I attended, people I know, or they know, or people in some specific news story. They may even assume it’s about me. And there’s nothing I can do about that, except say nope, I make things up for a living, and move on to the next question.
HANK: Femmes, do you ever get this question? Or...ask it? Come on, you can tell us!
Michele Campbell is a graduate of Harvard College and Stanford Law School and a former federal prosecutor in New York City who specialized in international narcotics and gang cases.
A while back, she said goodbye to her big-city legal career and moved to an idyllic New England college town, where she now spends her time writing novels.
When twin sisters Rose and Bel Enright enroll in The Odell School, a prestigious New England boarding school, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. But the school brings out a rivalry between them that few ever knew existed. And the school itself has a dark underbelly: of privileged kids running unchecked and uninhibited; of wealth and entitlement that can only lead to disaster. For Sarah Donovan, wife of an ambitious teacher who is determined to rise through the ranks, Odell also seems like the best thing that could happen to their small family. But how well does she really know her husband? And when one dark night ends in murder, who is guilty, who knows the truth, and who has been in on it all along?