The day I received my first copy of Lies of the Heart I took it with me to meet a friend for lunch. While I was waiting for her in the lobby, an elderly woman plopped down beside me on the bench, and after a few pleasantries she motioned to the book on my lap with her chin.
“Any good?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Yes, I’m very proud that I’ve finally published a book, but I’m still trying to negotiate the line between being proud and being braggy. I could have said, “It’s really great–I wrote it!” but instead settled on, “It’s okay, I guess.”
“What’s it about?”
I gave her the one sentence tagline–“A mentally handicapped man murders his speech pathologist”–long memorized by this point because this is inevitably the first thing people want to know when they hear you’ve written a book. Normally I start with something I think is funny (in this case, it would have been about how an elderly woman sits down beside a writer, waiting to be seated for lunch, and then a bloody massacre ensues) but somehow this just didn’t seem appropriate–and not just because she didn’t know I was the writer. She had a very sturdy-looking metal cane by her side.
“Hmmmmm,” was her only response to my description.
She asked to see it and she flipped it to the back, her mouth moving as she read the blurbs.
“Well, these people seem to like it,” she said almost defensively, as if I’d lied to her. She flipped to the front jacket cover (more mumbling lips) and then the back; her eyes peered over the spine at me and then back to my picture on the jacket a few times, and then she thumped the book back onto my lap.
“You should be proud, young lady,” she said, scowling a little.
“I am, really,” I said. “It’s just that it’s my first one, and I don’t want to be boastful or anything.”
This finally made her smile. “You go on and boast a little, honey. It’s not everyone who writes a book.”
We talked a little about writing in general and then she said, “Tell me something, where do you writers get the ideas? How do you start?”
This is another inevitable question, but for once I had a good answer. This is what I told my new friend:
The day before I moved from Ohio to North Carolina, I was packing like crazy when the manager from my local U-Haul company called to say that he’d mistakenly leased my truck to someone else. My only option, he told me, was to drive to another town about an hour away to arrange for a new one. My stress level was pretty high as I hopped in the car, but soon enough I started daydreaming about my brother, Joe, who is mentally handicapped. My family was to arrive the next morning to help with the move, and Joe and I had already decided that he would spend most of the car ride to North Carolina with me. So I was thinking about our recent conversations on the phone and imagining where our new ones might lead us the next day, because Joe has this ability to shift from “innocent” to complex thinking in an instant, and it’s always such a surprise to me (his beliefs about the real Santa Claus living at the North Pole versus the helpers at the mall once dovetailed into a very complicated discussion about deception and greed). I was excited to see what my brother would come up with in our twelve hours together, certain that there would be plenty of reminders that he isn’t a child, even if he has the IQ of ten year-old and loves playing with toys.
While I was thinking about this I was also half-listening to the radio and at one point there was a news update about a man who was indicted for a murder (or maybe a violent crime, I can’t remember exactly) and I found myself almost idly wondering what would happen if it were Joe facing this prison sentence. After a few minutes a very disturbing picture started to take form: my sweet brother sitting alone in a dark jail cell, trying to be brave as he drew pictures on the pad he takes with him everywhere. The image was so scary and just so wrong that I started plotting how I would bribe judges and prosecutors, and by the time I was deep into elaborate prison breaks I realized the stress of the move was actually getting to me! But the very cool thing that happened next was a flood of “what if” questions, and that’s when I knew a book was starting to take shape: What would happen if a mentally retarded man with the IQ of a little boy murdered someone? What would make him do this, and how would he try to explain his feelings and actions? How would his very simple and then complex reasoning intersect or get tangled up together? And what if this man actually knew and loved the person he killed? After a few minutes, I found myself plugging in answers to my growing questions, and by the time I returned home I had a very rough outline of the plot and the main characters.
The only issue, then, was talking to my brother about it the next day. How could I write a book about a handicapped person if Joe wasn’t behind it? So after we were on the road for a couple of hours and had canvassed Joe’s job, and why I had been single for so long, and how many pennies I had collected in the past year, and why God takes people to heaven before they’re ready, I asked my brother how he would feel if I wrote a book about a handicapped man who killed someone. He thought about it for a little while as he watched the landscape zip by, then finally turned to me with troubled eyes.
“Why he do it?”
“I’m not really sure yet.”
“No, not at all. He’s just troubled.”
My brother’s eyes grew wide behind his glasses. “Pretty troubled,” he said.
“You make him look stupid?”
“Of course not, he’s really smart. I just want to try to understand why he’d do it.”
He did a bit more thinking. “Maybe the guy he kill is bad? Mean?”
“Would it bother you? If I wrote about someone like you doing something like that?”
“Um, no, no, I not think so. His name be Joe?”
“No, I don’t have the name yet. But I don’t want to give him your name, if that’s all right.”
“Can his name start with ‘J’ maybe?”
“Okay, I not mind.”
We spent the next twenty minutes coming up with “J” names, and when Joe said, “I like Jerry best,” I said, “Jerry it is!” and we moved on to more interesting topics (did my dog Tucker like him the best of all the uncles? Would I bury him in the sand when we went to the beach? How could we pull a prank on our brother-in-law, John, while he was sleeping that night?).
By the time I finished this story, the friend meeting me for lunch was waiting patiently beside me on the bench.
“That’s a good story, honey,” the woman said, patting my leg again. “You go on now and get something to eat. You could use a few pounds.” (She was my favorite person in the whole world right then).
Later, as my friend and I were finishing up our salads, the woman hobbled up to the table with her own lunch companion.
“Tell her what your book’s about,” she demanded, gesturing with her cane to her friend. “This girl’s written a book, Margie.”
I paused for a moment, and what I said next I blame on the one and half glasses of wine I consumed.
“Two women interrupt this writer at lunch, and she whips out a machine gun and mows them down.”
“Oh my God,” my friend muttered.
But my new friend didn’t miss a beat. “Now that would be a bestseller,” she said, grinning like a girl before she hobbled away.