Miriam Gershow is the author of The Local News (read my review; read an excerpt) which was published through Spiegel and Grau in February 2009. This would make a great book for discussion (get book group discussion questions). To read more about Miriam Gershow and her work, please visit the author’s website.
I asked Miriam Gershow to write a guest post for my blog, and she graciously agreed to do so. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.
Guest Post: Author Miriam Gershow
The most common question I’m asked about The Local News is: “Were you inspired by a real missing person case?” The second and third most common are probably: “Do you have personal experience with someone who’s gone missing?” and “Did you do a lot of research about missing persons?”
People tend to be surprised when my answers are: No, no, and uh, no. They tend to be even more surprised when I say I never really considered The Local News to be a “missing person” story when I was writing it. That’s the point when readers narrow their eyes at me a little, cock their head to the side and seem to be saying without saying, “Did you write the same book that I read?”
Let me explain.
I always conceived of The Local News as first and foremost, a coming of age story for Lydia Pasternak. Through much of the writing process, I thought of her brother’s disappearance as the backdrop to that coming of age. In the words of one of my former writing teachers, I thought of Danny’s disappearance as a device. It was a way blow wide open of the normal tensions of adolescence: feeling alone, being disoriented, having the sense that everything is changing and there’s no control over it. It allowed me to set Lydia adrift from her parents, to uproot her from all that was familiar, to align her with a new group of friends, and to force her to confront uncertainty, loss and change in one of the most dramatic ways possible.
The questions I was most interested in answering were: What if someone disappeared and the person left behind was ambivalent about it? What happens to a family system if one of its key players is taken out of the picture? What happens when you’ve lived in someone else’s shadow and you start to step out of that shadow? How does one grow up in the face of both the normal traumas of adolescence and the extraordinary traumas of such a circumstance? How does one learn to live and love and truly move on after a situation like this one?
So my interests were always of the human sort; they never included the details of the police work or the details of the searches or the details of the investigation, unless those details directly influenced Lydia’s experiences. In my mind, the dividing line was clear: It wasn’t a book about Danny. It’s a book about Lydia.
But, the more I talk about the book and answer questions about the book, the less dogmatic I become about this issue, for a couple of reasons.
One, I’ve discovered that writing about a missing person naturally turns a book into a missing person story. It’s like including a tsunami or a school shooting in a book. These are such naturally dramatic and life-changing events–so extraordinary–they end up fully informing the universe of the story. And that is undeniably true of the The Local News. While I didn’t write a play-by-play of all of the procedures and minutia that accompany the nitty-gritty details of a missing person case, Danny’s disappearance informs every event, every scene and every relationship in the novel.
And two, even more importantly, what begins as a device on page one did not remain a device for me by page 357. Though I told myself this was never Danny’s story–and Lydia did remain my central focus for the entire writing process–I did come to deeply care about him over the course of writing this book. After all, I spent two years with him; I discovered his history, his vulnerabilities, what made him tick. And so I came to care about what happened to him. I cared about the efforts to find him. I cared about the outcome of his disappearance. At the start of the first draft, he was just a bully Lydia was happy enough to be free of. By the end of the final draft, he lived and breathed in my mind as much as any of the other characters did.
There’s a part of me that still doesn’t consider The Local News to be a “missing person” story. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I don’t consider it to be solely a missing person story. Yes, there’s a missing person at the center of it. But there’s also this achy, uncertain, bristling teenage girl at the center of it. And she is who held my interest; she’s who brought me back to the blank page each day. Perhaps it’s a little silly to frame it as an either/or. Perhaps I’m guilty of what Lydia and Danny were guilty of as teenagers: creating sibling rivalry where there needn’t be any. There’s no reason why a book can’t be both about a missing boy and the coming of age of a girl, all at once. And I suppose that’s what I hope for mine.
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