This past Sunday, I went to the annual Brooklyn Book Festival, and at one of the panels there, I heard an author talk a bit about story creation. In about five minutes, she told an anecdote that I found valuable to listen to and think worthy of repeating. The author was Tayari Jones, editor of Atlanta Noir and four novels, including An American Marriage.
In response to an audience question that, if I remember correctly, had to do with finding story ideas, Tayari Jones related how at one point in the recent past she had a grant to do research on wrongful incarceration in the United States. During the course of her work, she collected lots of data about wrongful incarceration. She found herself with loads of statistics. But in all these facts and figures pertaining to this grave problem, she had, well, no story. How from all this information, socially relevant and compelling as it was, would she create a narrative?
Then one day around this time, in Atlanta where she lives, she was walking through a mall. In the mall, she saw a couple talking, a man and wife of about the same age, well put together.
The wife said to her husband, "You know you wouldn't have waited on me for seven years."
Now I can't replicate how amusingly Tayari Jones told her story at this point, but essentially she said that when she heard this, and as she observed the couple, one thing was crystal clear. She knew that the woman was speaking the truth. There was no way that the husband would have done for his wife what the wife had done for him - wait seven years. Tayari Jones said something like, "I knew he wouldn't have waited, the wife knew he wouldn't have waited, and the husband also knew he wouldn't have waited. Everybody knew he wouldn't have waited on her for seven years."
But then the husband said, "What are you talking about? This wouldn't have happened to you in the first place."
And that, Tayari Jones said, was the genesis for an idea that turned into a novel (An American Marriage). It's when she has characters who each are partly right that she can see a way into exploring a subject. There had been no story, no ambiguity, not the complexity she needed, in the data she amassed on wrongful incarceration. It is what it describes, she said: "Wrongful." We know that. Yes, but a story revolving around a wrongful incarceration told from the perspectives of a husband and wife who each have their takes on the matter? That, not so cut and dry, she could work with.
As I say, I found this anecdote Tayari Jones told entertaining and instructive (as did the audience, which applauded), and now, in addition, I really do want to read An American Marriage.