EVERYTHING TO LOSE
A common question for all novelists is from where do you get your ideas? In my case, each book always seems to be a sort of triangulation of three, sometimes four, completely separate elements or themes that, married together, germinate into the nucleus of plot and character. They can be newspaper articles, TV clips, personal stories. Many times they are things that felt interesting to me a long time back that I didn’t know what to do with then, and put “in the vault” so to speak, to hopefully come to life and fit into something years later.
In EVERYTHING TO LOSE, there were four of these original, but completely separate, elements. The first was a question– how far would you go as a parent to protect your own child? Would you cross the line and do something that you knew was wrong? Even criminal? And which could put you in danger? And then, does doing a bad thing for the right reason make it right? Or at least, forgivable? So I created a gritty, devoted, but desperate mom, whose life has taken an unfortunate turn, and a son with hardships. And a deadbeat dad, and ultimately a tempting twist of fate that lures her over the edge. It’s just a small step from the moral high ground to total freefall.
Throw into the mix that a year or so ago I read a fascinating article in the NYT Magazine on what are known as “C-U” kids—callous and unemotional—who behaviorists feel carry the twisted personality defect of future psychopaths. I began to wrestle with the thought: what if one of these kids grows up, learns to control his bad instincts, manages to get through life and ultimately finds himself as a person of power and responsibility—and then the urges come back. It would be like a lurking bad seed, someone admired and looked up to, but a time bomb waiting to go off. Someone with something to hide.
Five years ago, I saved a newspaper article describing the murder of a teenage girl by her boyfriend twenty years before on the blighted, industrialized shoreline of Staten Island. I can’t quite recall what attracted me back then: the ugly, moonscape setting; that it was buried and forgotten for twenty years; that when ultimately admitted to, it was such a seemingly spontaneous and motiveless act. I thought, what if that was my “bad seed” back then? Something he did, concealed, then ran away from. That article I threw in “the vault” suddenly sprang back to life.
Then sometimes, real life has a way of contributing things too. Superstorm Sandy happened as I was putting all this together, —a devastating game changer, especially in the low lying coastal areas, in this case, Staten Island. It all began to fit together, even more when I combined it with the personal tale of a good friend, who’s mother owned a beautiful house on the Jersey shore, and which was devastated by the storm—every memento, every antique, every photo, every piece of china, every filagreed frame, every piece of history of my friend’s parents life, swept out to sea and washed away. It was a compelling and heartbreaking testimony for me, and I wanted to weave it in, tie it into my silent, buried murder victim from Staten Island twenty years before; into to my now-powerful bad seed with something terrible to hide. Back into my desperate mother who steals something she knows is wrong. All linked together by the storm, by something valuable that is washed out to sea, in this case a piece of evidence they didn’t even know they had, and then is carried back by the same waves that took it out, and damningly returns.