Last summer, while I was trying desperately to conquer debilitating back pain, I decided it was time, finally, to write. A dream for thirty years that was set aside due to circumstances, this was my chance. So I started to write “my story.” And my story would be about the most pivotal year of my life, my junior year of college spent in Fribourg, Switzerland.
But something happened. I started to realize that, while my story may have been important to me, it didn’t necessarily make for good reading. There were plenty of funny anecdotes, most of them involving mangled language and translations, but a compelling story? Not so much.
I lived in Switzerland from September 1978 until early July 1979. For those of you who can remember, there were no cell phones, no computers, internet, e-mail, voice messages, texts, instant sharing of photographs, or Skype. A standard air mail letter took about a week to reach the States (and one from home took a week to arrive). Long-distance telephone calls were limited; I was advised to call home only once – at Christmas. “Care packages” from home were ridiculously expensive to send via air freight, but it took about six weeks by boat (the jeans I requested in October arrived in December).
I began to write about that year; however, I created a new character named Bernadette and set her on a journey. Bernadette’s story is no one else’s; she’s not based on anyone I know or knew. In fact, with one or two exceptions (known only to those who spent the year in Switzerland with me), all the characters are made up. But the town is real, the streets are real.
So how does one write about events without having fully experienced them? I remember something author Ann Hood said. Her first novel, “Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine,” featured a young woman named Rebekah, who desperately wanted a nose job. Ann Hood never had a nose job, yet she wrote so convincingly about the pain and angst Rebekah felt that her publishers, when meeting the author for the first time, believed she’d had a rhinoplasty. Rather, Ann Hood tapped into the emotion. I tried to do that with Bernadette. And Bernie just kind of evolved, as characters do. I hadn’t created an outline of how the story would go; in fact, the first time my editor read it, she didn’t like the ending at all. I had to agree; it wasn’t good enough and I changed it completely.
If you read my debut novel, I hope you enjoy it. Some writers will say that the first book is simply “practice.” I didn’t view “Chocolate for Breakfast” that way at all. I’m hard at work on my second book, and I’m grateful to be doing what I love.