Familiar faces

(I wrote the following post for a friend who wanted to hear this story.)

Working on novels is very different than working on short stories. (For me–I’m compelled to add that qualifier, always, because I don’t claim to know how anyone else’s head works.) The sheer volume of time I spend with the characters means my relationship to them is stronger, more complicated. There were times with The Lost that I felt as though my main characters were with me all the time. In the backseat of the car, for example, like three troublesome kids.

Which is all fine and good. The scary thing is when they cross that line between imaginary and flesh and blood.

A few years back, around winter holiday time, I went to a chain bookstore. I got in line for the register, not paying much attention, as usual. When it was almost my turn I looked up.

Crap.

It’s one thing to write a monster–a man whose obsessive desires and sense of privilege justify a range of cruelty. It’s quite another thing to have him sell you a book.

I crossed my fingers that I’d get the nice college woman instead. I didn’t. I looked very carefully at the man’s name tag when I came to the register. It wasn’t the name I’d written. He was just a guy selling books, a bored one at that, but the tilt of his head, his features, his attitude…it was him. I scooted out of the store. It’s not as though you can say to stranger in a bookstore, hey, do you carry a knife, by any chance?

I saw him one other time. Never again after that. I hadn’t thought about him in a long time. Not until a couple months back, when I ran into Juno Stuart in the grocery store.

Now, I can’t tell you much about who bookstore guy reminds me of, because that gives away some things in Wren. Juno isn’t such a secret. She’s driven, and charismatic, and intensely physical. If someone were going to make the leap from imagination to tangible form, it would be Juno.

And apparently she likes trail mix.

I’m tall for a woman. I can’t easily hide in a small grocery store. If I could have, I would have followed her the whole time. As it was, I watched her check out trail mix while I pretended to be checking out tortilla chips instead of her. She acted like she didn’t care. Like Juno would have acted.

And that was it. She was there, she bought her trail mix, she was gone.

That’s the way novels go. They pull you in to the world as you write, and it’s hard to walk away from it. It’s very much like reading as a kid–that sense that if you just look hard enough you’ll find your way through the wardrobe (if only you could find a wardrobe). Some little piece of your mind devotes itself to that search, always tuned outward, like SETI, and every now and then it goes bing. There’s always an explanation–in a college town you see so many people come and go that you can spot just about anyone–but it’s fun to feel that thrill.

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