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These Are Not the Words: the Understory



by Amanda West Lewis

I didn’t set out to write a “semi-autobiographical novel.” In fact, when the publisher put that label on the book, I was somewhat aghast. I was using people from my childhood who were interesting characters, but I wasn’t writing about my life. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, and the events that happened in the story didn’t happen to me. It’s fictional, isn’t it?

Or is it? Sometimes writing takes over from the writer. As I read the manuscript now, I see how Missy’s sensations and reactions came from “real” moments in my life. There are real people in the story who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. Now, looking back, it is getting hard for me to distinguish between real and imagined.

The novel started as a picture book, written from a prompt: What is the earliest memory you can recall from childhood? The prompt was given to set me into a moment of memory –– to explore the tastes, smells, textures, and sounds in that memory –– and to see where it went. It was a terrible picture book, but it encouraged me to explore further. I had been writing a lot of poetry and had pared the language of the story back to what was essential. I used sense memories to create images in a reader’s mind. I decided to work with this kernel to write a novel in verse and prose vignettes. I wrote in the third person, exploring the story of a girl’s relationship to her increasingly absent father.

The responses I had from beta readers, agents and editors was that the story was beautifully written, but somewhat nostalgic in tone. As though the character was looking at it, rather than living it. One day, in frustration, I decided to try one chapter in first person.

I still remember the chill I got. I was scared. It was all suddenly too real.

And of course, it was exactly the right thing to do.

Once I made that shift, I started to mine my personal life. I used a lot of family photographs as reference points. My father was a photographer, and I have an amazing collection of his prints. Prints of Ray Charles and Miles Davis. Of John and Bobby Kennedy. Of friends in New York. Of our family, as it was in the early years.

I used some of my father’s poems as well as writing that he did much later, when he was clean and sober.

My mother wrote a memoir of her life in New York called Love and All that Jazz. She always said to me “I’ve given you great copy, honey. Use it.” So I did. The result is this “semi-autobiographical” novel. It is both a synthesis and a teasing apart. Missy gets to tell her own story, which is not mine, but she does it using parts of my father’s life, my mother’s life, and my life. It is the most personal thing I have every written. And the most fictional.

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