There’s a quote that the Internet tells me is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Now, it feels pretty pretentious to call my first novel, The Incident Under the Overpass, art. It’s fiction, and it’s a bunch of words strung together moderately well. It’s definitely the fruit of a long-time labor, but I feel silly referring to it as art.
Robert Olen Butler uses the term art object in his book From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. In the introduction to the book, author Janet Burroway writes that she is “preternaturally squeamish” about words like that. I know what she means.
But regardless of how I refer to my work, I totally get the abandoned analogy. I’m just shy of spending six years on this project. And I think I might finally be done. Or at least, ready to abandon it.
Something occurred to me in the final throes of the effort. In thinking about what I hope to accomplish, I thought of all the usual things. I want to connect with an audience. I want to be a wildly successful writer, enough so that I can quit my day job. But I realized I was missing something big.
All along, it’s been a thirty-three-year-old widow named Lacey Campo Becnel driving this thing. Lacey is the protagonist of The Incident Under the Overpass. It’s not quite accurate to say I want to connect with an audience—because I want Lacey to connect with an audience. What I really hope to accomplish is for people to like Lacey, and her story. Or at least be entertained by it. That’s why I wasn’t content when the first draft was finished. Or the multiple subsequent drafts. I knew it wasn’t quite ready. It feels more ready now.
And I won’t be abandoning Lacey, not yet. I’m about a third of the way through a draft of her second book, and have a third one planned.
One of the only people to have read the manuscript in its entirety asked if Lacey was me. She’s not. One of the many reasons I hated The Bridges of Madison County was that the author so obviously modeled one of the main characters after himself. I read the book a thousand years ago, and I still remember it as a lesson in what not to do.
Besides the fact that Lacey is considerably younger than me, I’m also not five foot seven with tawny, reddish hair. I don’t have a rock star brother. I’m not a widow. I don’t have a Saint Bernard. And—this is important—I don’t have a supernatural healing ability.
Early on in my writing, but late enough so that Lacey and her dog, Ambrose, were already fully formed in my mind’s eye, I saw a picture in a catalog: a pretty young woman out in the snow with her Saint Bernard. Some details about the woman are not quite right, but the Saint Bernard is a Saint Bernard, and the whole thing was close enough to merit some attention. It kind of felt like the collective unconscious (from where I dream?) was reaching out to me from the pages of the Sundance catalog (I think it was Sundance. There’s no footer by the page numbers). I pulled out the page and put it up on the side of the wardrobe that sits to the left of my writing desk.
I remember the first time I ever got feedback on the opening chapter. I received some very animated critiques asking why I wasn’t more scared, or panicked, about waking up naked underneath the I-610 overpass. I had to remind the group (or at least certain members) that I wasn’t writing a memoir. It was fiction. (It wasn’t even written in first person, no version of it ever has been). I like to think that maybe it was because the writing felt so authentic, but who knows.
And, for the record, I’ve never woken up naked underneath the I-610 overpass at Marconi.
Nor is Lacey my alter ego. Anne McClane is my alter ego. Lacey Becnel is a character of my creation. But Lacey is obviously informed by me. How could she not be? I am as much Lacey Becnel as Lee Child is Jack Reacher (how do you like that—drawing a comparison to a bestselling author and his character—I’m playing P.T. Barnum, here, trying to hype Lacey). And honestly, I’ve only read one of the Reacher books, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Maybe Lee Child does feel like he’s Jack Reacher, I don’t know.
For the record, I don’t feel like I’m Lacey Becnel.
Though, there are a few things we have in common. We both grew up in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. We both have a bit of a chip on our shoulder. We both tend to overthink things.
But truly, I hope that’s where the similarities end. I couldn’t have spent all this time and energy on someone who just mimicked me or my life experiences. My imagination would have felt too choked. I have a hard enough time as it is writing this blog, which is about my life experiences. If it weren’t for the pen name—my alter ego—I’m not so sure I could do it.
So there you go. Whether it’s art, or an art object, or just a story, it’s mostly finished. I have many more “firsts” ahead of me before I can introduce Lacey to the wider world (commissioning cover art and arranging distribution, to name two). But I look forward to the day—it will be this summer (I write with conviction)—when Lacey can make her debut.
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