THE BLOG
10/08/2010 02:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is This Book About You? The Butter in the Cookies

There something a little creepy about knowing that as my friends, family, neighbors, and mailman read the novel I wrote, that they're probably thinking: So that's what she thinks about when she has sex! Oh, that's how she really views her kids! My God, she lies to her husband?

No matter how much I insist that no, the mean cheating husband is not really a faintly disguised version of my husband (or ex-husband), I'm quite sure that their nod of agreement translates to, Sure. I just bet.

How to explain a writer's joyous transmogrification of demons into fiction? How to tell someone that no, that is not my mother, my sister, my husband, but a stew of the emotions and fears and love that I've absorbed. Philip Roth said it well in an interview (that I can't locate) where he explained how it was the very goodness of his mother that allowed him to write about awful mothers. I understood that so well, because it was only after I entered a warm loving relationship that I could explore the darkest parts of myself without fear.

I've often tried to explain my work process, in answer to those knowing glances about my characters. No. It's not me -- it's nuggets of all my fixations blown up into a world of crazy. It is, as I recently read in The Nobodies Album, a novel by Carolyn Parkhurst, the butter that I can finally put in the cookies, a phrase from Parkhurst's the main character, a writer, who muses:

"There's an analogy I came up with once for an interview who asked me how much of my material was autobiographical. I said that the life experience of a fiction writer is like butter in cookie dough: it's a crucial part of flavor and texture -- you certainly couldn't leave it out -- but if you've done it right, it can't be discerned as a separate element. There shouldn't be a place that anyone can point to and say, There -- she's talking about her miscarriage, or Look -- he wrote that because his wife has an affair."

I hope I never forget the phrase (and that I always give proper thanks to Ms. Parkhurst) the butter in cookie dough. What a perfect capture for fiction -- taking the elemental issues with which one struggles, giving those problems to one's characters, and kneading those thorny emotional themes that haunt into the thoughts, minds, and actions of those characters until, hopefully, you can beat that sucker into submission.

Then move on to the next one.

How do you explain to a neighbor that your lifelong struggle with a mother obsessed with vanity became a character's need to re-invent herself as a cosmetic tycoon? That your daily struggle with weight grew into a character's morbid obesity? That your lonesome childhood morphed into a Dickensian orphanage?

How do you answer when someone asks where you got your idea? There's not a book club I've visited that hasn't asked me that question about my book, and while the answers I give are honest: a childhood incident, the work I've done, a letter to the editor I read -- those are the answers about the book's recipe. Now, thanks to Parkhurst, I have the answer to how the emotions marbling the story really came about:

It's the butter in the cookies.