There comes a moment at every literary event, a moment every author dreads, when the lights go up and the Q&A starts. The vast majority of the Q is fine (I can't speak for the A, you'll have to be the judge). What book am I reading now, when did I first want to become a writer, how do my children feel about the title of my last book. I like those Qs. I like especially the Qs that haven't been asked before, the ones that give me a chance to depart from my practiced answers. I'm not as fond of the Q that begins with some version of, "I hated this book, but not as much as I loathed your last one," but I can handle that. (I find it usually helps to agree with the person and to suggest alternatives. Ian McEwan never disappoints.) The Q I loath and despise, the Q every single writer I know loathes and despises, is this one:
Where, the reader asks, do you get your ideas?
It's a simple question, and my usual response is a kind of helpless, "I don't know." But I do know. I'm just embarrassed to tell you. I get my ideas from you, or from your mother, or from someone else I run across to whom something bizarre or sad has happened, someone whose life is miserable, but in an interesting way. "Write What You Know," goes the old adage, but once you've written about what an unloved geek and freak you were in high school (and every writer I know claims to have been the most unhappy teenager who ever lived. Where were these people when I was sitting alone at the lunch table at George Washington Jr. High? I'd like to know. Couldn't we have been sitting together?), once you've mined the exciting tale of your grandmother/grandfather's immigration to America from Russia/Italy/China/Vietnam, once you've spent an entire novel complaining about how much it sucks to have to wake up in the middle of the night with the baby, then what?
I'll tell you what. Other people's misfortune. That's where we get those ideas that inspire us (and, we hope, you). Most writers spend their lives standing a little apart from the crowd, watching and listening and hoping to catch that tiny hint of despair, that sliver of malice, that makes them think, Aha, here is the story.
My new novel, Red Hook Road, began many years ago as a short article in the newspaper. A bride and a groom (or was it the groom and the best man?) were killed on their way from the church to the reception, when a speeding car smashed into their limousine. The horror of that happening on that day, at that moment, when you are about to embark on a completely new life, where everything is possible and the future is all that is on your mind... that stuck with me for years. I'd think of it time and again, as anyone would. A normal person thinks about that tragedy, and maybe gets sad all over again. A writer thinks of it and wonders, "Can I use this?" Until one day, you can, and you do.
(From Red Hook Road's Amazon page.)