On ideas, inspiration, and the origins of The Girls by Lori Lansens
As a novelist, I'm frequently asked where I get my ideas. The question is a
challenge for me because I don't really get ideas. I get characters. I have the
odd sense there's a world beyond this one where my fictional characters reside,
going about their dramatically rich lives until it's time for me to write their
stories. When it's time (such as determined by them not me), I invite the
characters, though they sometimes come unbidden, to step through the curtain and
sit with me at the desk. "Reveal yourself," I instruct, while my fingers beat a
rhythm on the keyboard.
Rose and Ruby Darlen, the dual narrators of The Girls, didn't just step
through the curtain, though. They charged through it in all their brilliant
conjoined glory. But only after shouting at me from the window of their
ramshackle farmhouse. And waving madly from their spot on the bridge over the
creek. And screaming from Frankie's basement, where that unimaginable thing
My first novel, Rush Home Road, was launched just a few weeks before I
gave birth to my second child, a daughter. She came on the book tour with me, as
did my son, two and a half years old at the time. My little boy (who couldn't
pronounce "r" ) was confounded as to why I had to keep leaving him to talk about
"Lush Home Load." I recall being in Ottawa, coming from an early-morning
interview, publicist waiting in the car at my hotel as I ran up the stairs to
nurse my newborn, watching the clock because I was due at a television station
across town for a live broadcast in twenty minutes. (I made it.) The rest of the
tour, and most of that time, is a lovely blur. The babies. The book. The
I do remember this frequently asked question: "What's your next book?" It was a
question I answered consistently and confidently with "My next book is called
The Wives, and it's a story about a man with five wives." I never liked to
talk about my work in progress, or the progress of my work. I was a screenwriter
before I started writing novels and found, luckily, that people had little
interest. I'd never discussed my work publicly and was caught off guard by the
many interesting and provocative questions. I tried, because of how my mother
raised me, to give good answers.
There was the question about inspiration. "What inspired you to write Rush
Home Road?" An easy question to answer in a superficial way, but there are a
thousand things that might inspire a single artistic act. "And what inspires you
to write The Wives?" they asked. "The notion of the charismatic man," I
answered. "A man so charismatic that, unburdened by culture or religion,
intelligent and beautiful women are willing to be one of his many wives." I'd
written about this man a number of times before, in different guises.
I began to write my story, slowly at first, then more slowly, and slower still.
Like walking on a fractured bone, it didn't matter how slowly I was writing, it
was painful. I blamed exhaustion, the demands of the children, my basement
workspace, anything to explain why the process was so difficult, so unlike
writing the first book. Nearly a year and one hundred and twenty-nine manuscript
pages later, I wondered if I was only writing The Wives because I said I was
going to write The Wives. It occurred to me that this charismatic character that
I'd been so captivated by might be just a flirtation. Even then there was
another story that had my heart. A pair of characters who seemed to sit
patiently on the sidelines of my imagination, occasionally calling out, "When
you're ready, we're here." They were Rose and Ruby Darlen, twins born joined at
the head. The Girls.
I once wrote a screenplay about a teenage girl with hypertrichosis (an excess of
body hair) who performs in a human rarities show under the name Wolf Girl. While
doing research for that character I entered the world of conjoined twins. I was
fascinated to read about famous conjoined twins in history Chang and Eng
Bunker (the Siamese twins), Millie and Christine McCoy (born into slavery in the
southern U.S. and liberated by the celebrity their conjoinment brought them),
Daisy and Violet Hilton (Hollywood starlets who met a bitter end). I didn't
immediately consider conjoined twins as characters for a novel, at least not
When my son was just a baby, I saw a snippet of a documentary about American
craniopagus twins Lori and Reba Schappell, who saw their conjoinment as a gift.
I was struck by how normal they were. Normal girls who happened to be attached
at the head.
Then, after Rush Home Road was launched, and my second baby had been
born, I followed the story of the Iranian twins Laleh and Ladan Bijani, who were
also born joined at the head, their faces side by side. The women, one a
journalist, the other a lawyer, held different world views, had conflicting
interests, and, although they loved each other deeply, wanted to lead
independent lives and sought out surgical separation. They expressed how eager
they were to look into each other's eyes, hours before they died on the
Of course I found inspiration in these stories of real-life conjoined twins, but
very early in the conceptualization process I recognized, while both of my
sweaty children were on my lap one deadly hot summer day, that a story of
conjoinment was stirred first in my imagination by my new and profound intimacy
with my son and daughter. I was sitting on the sofa, exhausted, nursing Natasha,
who'd been fussy all day. Max, then three and a half, was on my left, briefly
contented by a favorite storybook. When I finished the story, Max pressed his
cheek to mine. I quietly enjoyed the warmth of his little face and soon felt the
quickening of his cookie-breath. "I wish we could be glued like this, Mommy."
I got goose shivers.
"I wish we could be glued with our heads like this."
"Why, baby?" I asked. "Why do you want to be glued to Mommy?"
"Because then we would always be together."
We were quiet for a moment.
"But," Max realized suddenly, "we couldn't see each other." He strained with his
eyes to prove it.
Then he sighed. I understood his longing. And felt it, too.
The early years of motherhood and a lifetime of being conjoined are obviously
not the same thing. But my relationship with my children was a jumping-off
place. A seed of understanding that I knew would grow as Rose and Ruby revealed
themselves. And a truth I felt I could take to the edge.
Without delay (or regret) I said good-bye to The Wives and started writing The
Girls. It felt different. Good. Right. These twin girls joined at the head were
real to me in a way my charismatic man never was. By the end of the first few
weeks I felt fully connected to The Girls and thanked The Wives for giving me a
frame of reference. So it wasn't an idea to write about twin sisters who were
joined at the head that spawned The Girls. It was Rose and Ruby
themselves. They actually pushed aside a whole town of characters whose story I
was in the process of telling, and took their place at my desk.
Now the girls are out in the world, and I'm off on the book tour. My children
aren't coming with me this time. I'm looking forward to answering all those
interesting and provocative questions about the novel and the process of
writing. Except the one about my next book, of course. This time I'll keep that
Copyright © 2007 by Lori Lansens