Sunday, January 26, 2014

Guest Blog Elisabeth Elo: How Much of Your Novel is Autobiographical?

I’ve never solved a crime or swum in freezing water (although the ocean around here is pretty cold even in summer). My family isn’t from Russia, I didn’t go to boarding school, I never stood to inherit a business, and I haven’t been to Baffin Island. There’s a lot in North of Boston that has nothing to do with my life. I remember telling friends, “It’s a really crazy story,” as if I was bewildered by it. Which I was.

But when the novel was finished and people started asking me questions about it – one of the most common ones being “How much of the story is autobiographical?” – I began to realize that there’s actually a lot of me in the book. They’re just not the parts of me I would have put in a book had I been making conscious decisions about content. In some cases, they’re events that I didn’t consider particularly important while they were happening, or ones that I didn’t remember at all, even while I was creating some version of them in the novel. But they showed up in the pages anyway, with some pretty deep feelings attached to them.

I didn't remember until after I finished the book, for example, something that happened in high school when I was working at an aquarium: Some of us used to swim after hours with two dolphins named Salty and Spray who had been together in captivity for over a decade. At the end of the summer Salty died of a skin infection, and Spray went to the bottom of the tank, rarely surfaced, and refused to do the shows that she had enjoyed for years. She died in a few months time. Whatever the medical reason, it was clear to the people who cared about her that she’d died of a broken heart. What I learned about marine mammals from that experience obviously never left me.

I didn’t remember until after I’d finished the novel a lobsterman friend of ours who had died suddenly. There was nothing nefarious in his death, but it was still a very sad event as he left twin daughters behind. Years rolled by in which I didn’t think about him very much. It was only when I was writing the Q & A for my website that he came back to me full-force and I realized he was the model for Ned.

There are numerous other examples of that phenomenon in the book – submerged events and situations in my life that floated up unbidden and found life in the pages.

The specifics of plot and character are obviously important aspects of the book, but they are also relatively superficial. If Pirio wasn’t a perfumer, she could have been a chef. If she didn’t meet Martin when she was in Labrador, she could have met someone else. You can always trade one thing for another.

It’s the thematic material that brings depth and meaning to the story, and this stuff generally comes straight from the author’s heart. We can’t fake it or disguise it; sometimes we ourselves don’t understand it. Loss, wonder, friendship, work, responsibility to others, relationship to the environment – the way these issues and others like them are treated in a novel reflects the author’s own experience and expresses her deepest preoccupations.

Why do I have my character spend so much time taking care of an alcoholic friend, worrying about her child and wondering what her role should be? You guessed it. There’s no easy answer here. Why is she incapable of dealing with her mother’s death and avoids signs of her father’s illness? Right again. Both my parents died before I was twenty-five. How does she manage to go from the drawing rooms of Beacon Hill to the bar rooms on the waterfront? Well, I grew up near the trolley track that separated Dorchester and Milton, city and suburb. In one direction, everyone got richer; in the other they got poorer – all within the space of a few blocks. I went to an ivy league college on scholarship and made friends in the monied class, but at home I frequented the kinds of places where my classmates weren’t likely to show up. For years I studied subjects like post-structuralist literary theory during
the day and counseled drug addicts at night.

It may be true that writing fiction is a form of therapy, if by that we mean that writers take things that are emotionally rich or troubling to them (they don’t get to choose) and put them on the page. But that doesn’t mean writers are neurotic, it just means we’re like everyone else -- trying to play the best hand with whatever cards we’ve got.

About North of Boston:
Like a ship barreling out of the dense North Atlantic fog, comes Elisabeth Elo—a darkly intoxicating, discordantly poetic, gutsy new voice in contemporary suspense fiction. Her novel, NORTH OF BOSTON, introduces Pirio Kasparov, a Boston-bred tough-talking girl, who, in a near brush with death, discovers her extraordinary ability to survive sub-freezing water. Elo’s gritty and gripping voice evokes the full palette of human emotion—it’s one that echoes the likes Peter Høeg, Laura Lippman, and even Dennis Lehane, but is indelibly her own.

Pirio is baiting lobster traps in Boston Harbor when out of the veil of mist comes a freighter, splitting the fishing boat she is on in half—the impact hurling her into the North Atlantic. Miraculously, she survives for hours in the nearly-frozen water before being rescued, though the boat’s owner, her friend, Ned, is not so lucky.

Though the tragedy leaves her deeply unnerved, Pirio is compelled to look after ten-year-old Noah, the son of the late Ned and her alcoholic prep school friend, Thomasina. But, Pirio can’t shake the lurking suspicion that the boat’s sinking was no accident—a suspicion seconded by her deeply cynical, autocratic Russian father, Milosa, who constantly reminds her nothing is ever what it seems.

With the help of a curious journalist, Pirio unravels a lethal plot taking her to the wilderness of the high north. To survive, she must not only overcome the icy water and a deadly betrayal, but she must confront her ultimate challenge: to trust herself.

This immersing, atmospheric page-turner, sweeps you from Boston Harbor to the Canadian Arctic, bringing the entire northern seaboard to life with beautifully haunting prose. But perhaps even more inspiring than the book’s setting, is its idiosyncratic heroine, whose unforgettable voice drives this adventure due north. Already working on a sequel featuring Pirio and the same ensemble cast, Elisabeth Elo is poised to become one of the suspense genre’s premiere female writers.

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