“Who would I be if I was not me?”
If you’ve ever asked yourself that question, chances are you’re a writer.
Because that’s what we writers do. We put on other people’s faces, we climb into their bodies, we dress ourselves in their clothes, we put ourselves in situations we aspire to, or are curious about, or dread.
Who would I be if I were a 16-year-old girl with childhood diabetes and a fascination with vampires? Maybe I would be Lucy Szabo, the main character in Sweetblood. Who would I be if I was a five-foot-nothing Haitian-American kid with a closet full of bar mitzvah suits? I’d be Mikey Martin, from Blank Confession. Who will I be if I am not born until the year 2058? Possibly Rash’s Bo Marsten, the pizza-making footballer who confronts a polar bear in the year 2074.
In my latest book, Eden West, I asked myself who I’d be if I’d been raised in an isolated cult and knew almost nothing of the wicked and dangerous world outside the fence. Who would I be if I believed the end of the world was coming any day now? Maybe I’d be 17-year-old Jacob, whose family moved to a remote part of Montana and joined the Grace when he was five years old.
If I were Jacob, what would I do if my prophet married the girl I thought was meant for me? What would I do if I met another girl from the outside? What would I do if I fell in love?
We’ve all heard the expression “painting with words,” but the art most akin to writing fiction is the theater. Every day I sit down and rehearse my many parts—sometimes literally. If my character is a model train fanatic, as is Dougie in Invisible, I will set up a small model railroad in my office. For Eden West, I performed Father Grace’s sermons in front of a mirror. Do you think that J.K. Rowling never pointed a wand at a ringing phone or some other noisy intrusion and shouted “Silencio!”? I bet she does it all the time.
Getting into character, whether figuratively or literally, takes effort. If it doesn’t, then maybe it’s not fiction. But as difficult as it may be, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of the writing process. For me, it’s how I learn to understand other people—especially people who are not like me.
This was particularly important in Eden West, where most of the characters are fervent believers in a very odd and quirky religion. The Grace live each day waiting for the archangel Zerachiel to descend to earth in a great Ark and transport them to paradise—just before destroying the rest of the world. Despite that largely insupportable core belief, they are practical, they are kind, they hunger, they love, and they struggle—as do we all. I did not want to treat them as weirdly alien, or comic bumblers, or pitiable wretches. I wanted them to be as real as I could make them, and to do that I had to learn to be them.
I had to learn to not be me.
Bio: Pete Hautman
Pete Hautman is the author of more than twenty novels for adults and teens, including the 2004 National Book Award winner Godless, Los Angeles Book Prize winner The Big Crunch, and three New York Times Notable Books: Drawing Dead, The Mortal Nuts, and Rash.
His “young adult” novels range from science fiction (Rash, Mr. Was, Hole in the Sky, and The Obsidian Blade) to mystery (Blank Confession) to contemporary drama (Godless, Sweetblood) to romantic comedy (What Boys Really Want.)
With novelist, poet, and occasional co-author Mary Logue, Hautman divides his time between Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Stockholm, Wisconsin. His latest book is Eden West, the story of a boy growing up in an isolated doomsday cult in Montana.