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 happens.
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 questions.
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 consciously.
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 operating table.
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 to myself.
Copyright © 2007 by Lori Lansens
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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