It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that God has been directing my reading for awhile now. Sure, there are a few books that are truly leisure reading but more and more often I feel like every book I get the urge to read ends up being a sort of lesson in some aspect of crafting fiction.
Last week was one of the watershed moments of my writing life and I spent much time not writing on this blog or on Facebook because I was busy handling what had become a huge moment for me.
Ever since I was about five I have had people comparing me to fictional characters. My mom’s hairdresser started it by saying that I should read Little Women because I reminded her of Jo. From the time I was about eleven I’ve had people saying that I remind them of Anne Shirley of Green Gables fame. When I finally read those books I was more than a bit puzzled because while I see a few similarities I didn’t really care for those stories in general.
But then last week I did find my fictional counterpart in a novel in a way that was almost scary. I mean, I have a very few things in common with Jo March, mostly in the liking-to-read-and-write areas. (Most of the time I still think she was an idiot for not marrying Laurie.) And Anne Shirley has some things in common with me. But I AM Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I read that book for the first time last week and had such an emotional, gut reaction to Francie. No, I didn’t grow up impoverished in Brooklyn. I didn’t have an aunt who worked in the condom factory. But the rest of it, the being alone and loving books and not having friendships with (many) women…so many things about Francie Nolan are ME. I actually spent quite a few hours last week flat out ANGRY with my parents for not making me read that book when having read it would have been a great comfort to me–around 13 or so. Since my mom was my English teacher for several years it isn’t an entirely misplaced frustration. But I can see how this book with its frank language and talk of sex is not something that one thinks of for children.
But now I’ve read it, at 43. And now I’ve combed through the minutiae of Betty Smith’s life looking for clues as to where I go next. Francie, after all, may have been fictional but everyone–including Smith–acknowledges that she was mostly a depiction of Smith herself and that the book is largely memoir. It’s been a great comfort to me to know that A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was written when Smith was in her late 40s. More and more often I’ve been pointed to books that turn out to have been written by folks in their mid- to late-40s. It’s a comfort to realise that many of the greatest novels to need to gestate in the author’s brain until the other impulses of creativity in a woman’s life start to taper down.