Tell Me A Storyby Ellen Sussman
My novel, On a Night Like This, started with a visit from a once-close high school buddy of my new husband. Neal got a phone call from him after five years of no contact. "I'm passing through town," he said. "Give me your address. I'll be there in an hour."
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He pulled up in his truck a couple of hours later. He was bad-boy charming and cowboy handsome. He hung around for a few hours and a few beers. He told us a little about his life: he had already left one marriage, a couple of kids, and probably dozens of girlfriends along the way. (We later learned that his kids hadn't seen their dad in years.) He moved from job to job, town to town -- he was now living in a trailer somewhere.
And then he told us this story. He met an old classmate at their twentieth high school reunion. She was dying of AIDS. He fell in love with the woman. She had a four-year old child.
"What happened?" I asked, entranced.
He shrugged. "We spent about a year together. When she died I bathed her body, then brought her daughter in to say goodbye to her."
"What happened to the girl?" I asked.
Another shrug. "Dunno. Lost touch," he said.
When he left our house, his story stayed. It lodged somewhere in my imagination and wouldn't let go. There was something terribly wrong about his story -- something I wanted to fix. This story -- about a down-and-out guy, falling in love with a dying woman -- needed a different ending. In my ending, the guy had to be saved.
A few months later I sat down to write that story.
Neal's friend became Luke -- by Chapter Two my own character pushed him out of the way. The four-year-old became a sixteen year old. And the dying woman -- now dying of cancer rather than AIDS -- so powerfully touched Luke's life that both of them were transformed by their relationship.
I'm sure lots of stories walked into my life that year. There's a reason one story stays behind when the storyteller leaves. Other stories get forgotten soon after the lunch dishes are washed and put away. In my own life I had just tumbled -- wildly, dazzlingly -- into love. Love transformed my life. I wanted to write about it every day. And I'm raising teenage daughters. How could I write a book without using all that raw material?
None of this is a conscious act for a writer. We write our stories because the stories won't let go. It's only after the story's written that we can even begin to consider: hmm, I wonder why I chose to tell that story.
I haven't seen Neal's friend since I wrote On a Night Like This. I wouldn't be surprised if he read the book and didn't even recognize his own story. It's my story now.
©2004 by Ellen Sussman. All rights reserved.
Ellen Sussman studied English at Tufts University where she was awarded the Mable Daniel Prize for the most distinguished student in the arts. She won a teaching fellowship and earned a Masters in Writing at Johns Hopkins University, studying with John Barth, and writing a collection of short stories as her thesis. A dozen of Ellen's short stories have appeared in commercial and literary magazines. She won Redbook's Short Story Contest as well as Paris Transcontinental's story contest and a Writers at Work fellowship. On a Night Like This is her first novel. Visit Ellen's website at www.ellensussman.com.