I (Nancy) was happy to have the chance to ask author Charity Shumway to our site today to share something about her love of reading and writing. Charity earned an MFA in creative writing from Oregon State University and a BA in English from Harvard College. Her first novel, Ten Girls to Watch (linked to my review), was released in July. In 2007, she spent nine months reporting on the 50th Anniversary of Glamour’s “Top Ten College Women” contest, which served as the inspiration for her book. Her writing has appeared in that magazine and has also been published by Fitness, Ladies Home Journal, and Garden Design, among others. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn, New York.
What’s the difference between reading a novel that’s inspired by real-life events and reading a novel that’s inspired by nothing but pure imagination?
I have a vested interest in the answer to that question.
That’s because my novel, TEN GIRLS TO WATCH, is inspired by real-life events. In 2007, for the 50th Anniversary of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women contest, I spent nine months freelancing at the magazine, tracking down and interviewing as many of the 500 past winners of that contest as I could find. They were all women who’d been dynamos in college and then gone on to…what? My job was to find them and ask.
In TEN GIRLS TO WATCH, Dawn West has a very similar job at a magazine called Charm. And the similarities go on from there. Like me, Dawn’s not from New York but moves to the city with literary dreams. She lives in a terrible apartment and has a bank account that regularly dips down to low double digits. She dates unsuitable men. Me too me too me too.
All that made a difference when I was writing the novel. One of the big challenges of writing fiction that’s close to your real life comes when you forget that readers don’t automatically have the same feelings tied up in the scenes as you do. A few words about un-airconditioned swelter or the smell of cardboard furniture takes me back to the exact sense of vulnerability and frustration I had at 23, but they probably don’t evoke those exact feelings for anyone else. It takes a lot more to get readers there. I had to remind myself of that regularly.
But, if I’ve done my job well, the words do transport readers to a time and place and feeling. Does it matter if it’s a time and place and feeling that corresponds in some way to events in my life?
I hope the answer is not really. Whatever inspires a novel, we give our attention to the words, and we get back an experience. I think the quality of that experience depends on the words, not the reasons the author chose the words.
So that’s my hope: source material be damned! There’s no difference. It doesn’t matter. If a novel is good, it’s good. And as a reader, the story reaches you or it doesn’t. That’s it.
But I also know enough about myself and human curiosity to know that we wonder. What’s real, what’s not? It’s a tickle of a thought, sometimes barely there, and other times strong enough to make us wriggle.
But you know when a book is so good you forget you’re hungry? You forget it’s hot or that you’re tired? All you remember is nothing because your brain is given over. When you put the book down, there you are again with your sweaty hairline or your rumbling stomach, but while you were reading, you were gone, in the story, transported.
I think books like that can make us forget tickles as well. Not forever. Not before we pick the books up and not after we put them down. In those moments we can still wonder. But at least while we’re in them, away go those questions. Because, after all, “real” or not, it’s not the author’s experience while we’re reading, it’s ours.