I've heard that authors who are writing their first novels have a hard time keeping them from being a bit semi-autobiographical, and I suppose that's somewhat true about my own debut effort, Finding Grace. The story is set in my old hometown in Upstate NY, and Grace lives with her family in a sweet old house very much like the one in which I grew up on a street very much like the one where our home was located. Like my own childhood best friend, Grace's best friend Irene lives in a modern, ranch-style house out on the lake; and like my then boyfriend/now husband, the boy with whom Grace falls in love in high school lives on the lake, too, on the other side of town. Two colleges near and dear to my heart play a part in the novel: the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, where I graduated in 1980, and the University of Notre Dame, where my husband graduated that same year. Grace starts high school the same year my husband and I did--1972--and she and her friends attend a Catholic school very reminiscent of the one we attended...
I could go on and on. (And I have written several "Where Real Life and Fiction Intersect" posts already, if you'd like to peruse those here, here, and here.)
But there are many important differences, too. Contrary to my mother's assessment that the novel [which I don't believe she's read in full] is about my own story with my husband, which is simply not true (and I would tell you how it's different, but that would spoil the plot if you haven't read the book yet), things happen in this book that came completely out of my imagination--things about which I have no personal experience. Things that not only never happened to me, but didn't happen to anyone I was close to. So this work is most definitely FICTION, with a capital F, and it's important for the reader to remember that.
None of the families of the main characters in Finding Grace even remotely resemble the families of the real life individuals who inspired them. And that's the key word here: "inspired." Because most of these characters--Grace Kelly, Tom Buckley, Jimmy Sullivan, and Grace's five older brothers-- share some traits with real-life people, but they truly did become, over the course of the five years the book was coming together, quite unique individuals. Of course Tom Buckley has a whole lot of the same qualities I admire in my beloved husband; I started dating him at 15 and never looked at another guy--how could he not? And of course Grace's brothers share many traits with my own five wonderful sons, whom I just adore--and again, how could they not? But these characters all took on lives of their own as I wrote; they became people completely unlike anyone I knew in real life; they sort of whispered to me what they'd say and what they'd do, and they helped to move the plot along. I started out with a loose outline for my story, but the characters took me on many unexpected detours--because no matter what I thought they ought to do, over time I came to know what they WOULD do. They became good friends that I missed once the final chapter was done.
I miss them still! (Perhaps I shall write a sequel?)
I am not Grace Kelly, although I know very well what makes her tick and I share many of her feelings and insecurities. Grace and Tom's high school story does not follow the same path as my husband's and mine (and again, I don't want to say too much about that, because--spoilers!). But I know just what it's like to feel as if the boy you love is so much better than you deserve in every way, that he's perfect, in fact; to worry about not being beautiful enough, and to think that he's so much easier on the eyes than you are--and what does he want with little old you, anyway? Oh yes, I had confidence issues--just like Grace. I hid (and still hide) behind my glasses, like my shy and sometimes awkward heroine. All the feelings Grace has for Tom in the book were easy for me to write about, because I felt the same way about my guy back when I was an insecure teenager, back before I let myself believe that in his eyes I was beautiful enough.
When my husband and I graduated from high school in 1976 and went off to colleges that were separated by almost 900 miles, I wondered if the best part of my life was over. (Tears were shed the day he left for Notre Dame, about a week before I departed for Holy Cross. Copious tears.) I was sure that he would meet a smarter, prettier version of not-me out in South Bend. And what would that mean for my future? Well, then I would join the convent, I figured, because I had already made the determination that he was the only one for me.
Within a few months of arriving in Worcester I'd gained the famous "freshman ten" (the culprit was not really beer, but rather greasy slices of pizza eaten at midnight--accompanied by zero-calorie Tab, of course), while my main man remained Adonis-like; but my weight gain didn't seem to bother him. Although we'd decided we weren't going to hold each other back from seeing who else might be "out there," our relationship deepened--we'd been friends first before we were boyfriend and girlfriend, and now we were best friends--through hand-written letters and late-night phone calls. Then I added 10 more pounds my sophomore year, while at the same time experimenting with a short haircut that didn't suit me and new glasses the size of ski goggles. And still, our relationship flourished.
But we persevered. And we racked up enormous phone bills. And we visited each other's campuses on our breaks, which were never the same weeks, and reconnected every Christmas and every summer vacation. And I grew my hair out again. And I stopped eating so much pizza, even though those extra 20 pounds were never a deal-breaker in his book. And we did it, we made the long distance thing work. And we had the happily-ever-after ending everyone roots for, when we were finally joined in Holy Matrimony--in the hometown where we'd met--in December of 1980. And even though I've always felt I got the better end of the bargain, that saint I married, that guy who is the best helpmate I could have as I navigate the thorny path back to the Father who made us both, likes to say that he "married up."
Now what about Tom and Grace? Does their story have a happy ending?
I guess you'll just have to read the book to find out! ;)
(P.S. Finding Grace has a Facebook page now. If you'd like to stop by there for a second and "like" it, you'll be my best friend forever. Pinky swear.)