This blogpost is dedicated to my cousin Misha, who is celebrating her 29th birthday again. We all know that a character is like an iceberg, and the reader sees only the tip of it, right? What the reader doesn’t see is the backstory. The author still creates the backstory, in greater or lesser detail, in order to add dimension and emotional motivation to the character and his or her actions. Us real humans are much the same. We also have a backstory that affects our actions.
As you know from the blurb of “Zipper Fall”, Wyatt Gaudens abuses is considerable rock-climbing skills to break into people’s homes. Sometimes, he will steal something, but that’s not why he is there. He is there to live vicariously through his victims, because something very essential is missing from his own life: a sense of belonging to his family.
I won’t go on about Wyatt anymore as not to spoil the book for you, but I will share how my own background affected Wyatt’s inner hunger. And, since this post is also for my cousin Misha, I shall reveal that this part of her backstory is very similar to mine.
I grew up in a solid, imperfect family that cared a great deal. My father had one brother and three sisters, and the five of them conspired to produce a team of eleven cousins altogether, and there was nothing better than getting together with the cousins and exploring the old farmhouse and its environs in northern Bohemia. We picked mushrooms and fruit, we stole corn and peas and poppy heads from the state-owned fields, and we played all kinds of adventurous games. Since I was never particularly social, being among my cousins was one of the few times when I knew I was an accepted part of a group. (This little slice of heaven was drawn by my grandfather in 1972 – see photo, above).
My parents took the family across the border and headed for the West of the Iron Curtain when I was 13. They had all kinds of good reasons to do that, and I thank them for it. Nothing comes without a price, however, and one unintended consequence of our departure was my loss of being a part of the pack. We were refugees for 8 months before we ended up in Princeton, New Jersey. I had to learn English from scratch and had to adjust my cowboys-and-indians image of the United States to an updated reality. While adjusting and assimilating, I took on babysitting jobs, which is where my similarity to Wyatt Gaudens and his intrusions into the lives of perfect strangers begins.
Being in the homes of other families made me feel – almost – as though a part of their pack was on loan to me, and the gaping hole in my soul was temporarily plugged. Thus, I babysat often. It was rewarding. It was also educational, because once the kids went to sleep, I got to snoop around. I took note of the kinds of foods people kept around, and how those differed from what my parents bought. I evaluated their furnishings. Their bookshelves. Their values. Moms were in grad school, kids were in sports. I found sex manuals and tomes on Zen Buddhism, which I devoured while the parents were gone. The most important emotional take-away, though, was a sense that our family was no longer a speck of humanity tossed around on the seas of cold war politics, and unable to communicate with those in our old home country. Not back home – never “back home.” Those bridges have been burned in an act of emotional self-preservation.
I tapped into all those old and nasty feelings when I crafted Wyatt. He lost almost all meaningful contact with his family and friends. Rapelling down a building and invading somebody else’s living space is a dysfunctional and disturbing way to heal what ails him. All I can say is, he won’t have to do it forever. That, though, is a story for another day.
“Zipper Fall” is coming out on September 20th and can be preordered at http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/index.php?cPath=55_669