Howard Norman: How To Write A Love Triangle? Live One

07/02/2010 12:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In my novels I have always been interested in highly charged erotic triangles --- in What Is Left The Daughter the characters of Tilda, Wyatt, and Hans --- all living in close quarters in a small village in Nova Scotia during WWII -- are no exception.

In the natural course of things, a novelist is sometimes asked what are the autobiographical sources of a particular story or what are the historical facts that inform the story. Well, imagination itself is autobiographical ---when David Mamet was asked where he got his ideas, he replied, "I think them up." Yet while writing What Is Left The Daughter, it was imagination working in concert with basic incidents and circumstances of people's lives during wartime that I discovered during my yearly travels in Nova Scotia that made for a duet between fact and fiction. I was especially interested in the reactions of people when German U-boats began their lethal attacks on passenger ferries off the coast, and how individual families were effected. In my novel, the visiting German philology student Hans Mohring, in the wrong place at the wrong time, is caught up in the bewildering and passionate grief of a village.

But back to triangles. I would have to say that while working on What Is Left the Daughter, I remembered, from my own life a particular "triangle" that affected me deeply...

This is what I recall:

The summer I was fifteen, living in the Midwest, my father left my family. (My mother claimed he was living in California, but in fact he was living across town.) This was also the summer when my older brother, a classic "juvenile delinquent," brought his very beautiful, very sexually "open" girlfriend, Paris, home, much to the bewilderment of my mother, though secretly I felt she loved having a young woman to talk with. Paris would often wear a tee-shirt with the words, in bold lettering, EXIST TO KISS YOU, around the house, and frequently scant little else. (To sunbathe naked in 1964 in a Midwest town was, to say the least, a rare occurrence.)

Many evenings that summer--sometimes seven a week--full of contrary and heightened emotions and what I thought was secret knowledge, I would walk or ride my bicycle to a secluded park, which had a ramshackle wreckage of an old-fashioned New Orleans-style paddle-wheel river boat. It was half hidden in weeds and vines. It used to be the feature of an amusement park, but the park failed and nobody ever removed the paddle-wheeler. I knew this boat inside out. It was located near a famous "make-out" spot, where local teenagers would park their love-cars. I saw my brother's car there, Paris's feet protruding from a back-seat window, her shoes still on, for hours. Evening after evening, I'd watch the sea gulls, spectral in the waning light into darkness, gather on the paddle wheel. These were birds flown in all the way from Lake Michigan and there were dozens, some nights hundreds. Eventually, the moment I'd wait for with uncanny vigilance, as if the sight would set my own life back in motion somehow, was when so many gulls attended the top paddles, that they would actually turn the wheel, maybe only one rotation, but it was magical and the great reward to patience, whereas otherwise the world seemed to be moving at too fast a pace.