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Dear Friends and Readers:

As some of you know, I’ve published three novels in the last ten years and while every story has attacked disparate and challenging subject matter, and each book was written in a dramatically different style from the last, I have struggled with a common and recurring problem that I am now going to attempt to neutralize, nullify, expunge, annihilate and liquidate once and for all.

People, I am not writing about YOU.

Just because you notice one of my characters walking around in your alligator pumps with that black Moschino dress you wear all the time does not mean she’s Mary Jo Special.   And even if her manner of speaking sounds familiar, she’s not preaching your message.  Did you notice she has black hair?  Do you have black hair?  No.  You see?  I rest my case.

And sir, if my man uses your kind of toothpaste, is born on your birthday or drives the same year, make and model of your dream car, that does not mean he’s living your life.  Trust me my friend, he’s on a very different path.  (By the way, he went to a much better college than you did, which doesn’t necessarily make him smarter, just different.   And better educated.  Please try to relax. )

Maybe you make little “yum, yum” noises when you eat.  Did you notice that one of my less-likeable people does the same thing?  News flash: doesn’t mean I’m talking about you.   I like you.  You’re not bad.  And I am not saying that all bad people make “yum, yum” noises or that there’s anything wrong with smacking and groaning when you eat.   It’s just something my character does, has nothing to do with you.  Maybe I noticed you do that too but that’s just a coincidence.

Here’s how it works:

For me, going to The Office every morning is like walking into a vast industrial-sized kitchen.  First thing I have to do is turn on the oven/computer and get the place warmed up.  Then I open the refrigerator and see what ingredients I have to work with on that particular day.  I know, you want to stop me right there and ask, “Who stocks the fridge?  Where is the market?”  I see that you’re alarmed because you think you recognize your nose sitting on the shelf next to the glass butter dish.  And you’re pretty sure you spotted a half empty container of Mrs. Hornsby’s messy divorce behind that quart of O.J.  Oh-my-god is that your mother’s face on the milk carton?

Do a slow turn and see that the condiments and spices, the dry goods and canned items, are all composed of bits and pieces of shared moments and thoughts from our collective lives.  How did all this stuff get in my kitchen and what the hell am I going to do with your childhood memories?  As far as you’re concerned, none of this belongs here.  It’s yours, not mine.  And let’s face it; you don’t really like my cooking most of the time.  You were lying when you said you did.

I know I’m not the best chef in the world.  I admit that my successes are few and far between.  I often burn things and have to start over.  None of the recipes are written down so I’m forced to guess at the measurements and many times my concoctions are too salty or not sweet enough, watery or too thick.  But look around.  I’ve spent my whole life collecting these ingredients and they are all I have to work with.  So if I grab a pinch of your first sexual experience or a splash of your last extended depression, if you see that ridiculous fight we had three weeks ago show up in the second chapter of my next book, you’re just going to have to understand that each one of those elements are merely side dishes at my master banquet.  It’s not your tale that I’m trying to narrate, my friend.  These are my characters and I will use every single resource I have to tell their stories.  If you don’t want help with the preparations, I completely understand.  But in that case, I suggest you step away from this writer.  And stay far away.  And even with the distance, I can’t promise that you won’t show up on the page eventually.

If you do decide to stay for dinner, and I hope you will, I suggest you tie on your bib and pull up a chair.  I’m about to take the soufflé out of the oven and I have a feeling it’s going to turn out well but it might be a little messy.  Yes, I too smell your grandmother’s muffins and perhaps that is a piece of Aunt Susan’s scarf.  Let’s hope they add to the overall flavor.  Grab your spoon; it’s time to eat.

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Katie Arnoldi KATIE ARNOLDI has published three novels. The first, Chemical Pink, was a national bestseller. Her second novel The Wentworths was a Los Angeles Times bestseller as was her most recent book, Point Dume, which was published in May 2010 and released in paperback on 4-20 2011. Katie was the 1992 Southern California Bodybuilding Champion. She was also a competitive longboard surfer, an enthusiastic backcountry survivalist, fanatic scuba diver and a constant traveler. She has an extensive knife collection and is currently writing another novel.

8 Responses to “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

  1. Stephen Jay Schwartz says:

    Fantastic, Katie. A perfect metaphor. I’ve yet to have anyone come at me for stealing the moments of their lives. Except my mother, perhaps, but that’s to be expected. Mostly the folks I’ve “borrowed” from understand the process. One of the beat cops I interviewed for BEAT wasn’t insulted when I told him, “Mark, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that you’re in the book! The bad news is that you’re a lesbian.”

  2. Oh Steve, I love that good news/bad news story about Mark the beat cop and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. Parts of the lesbian character were him but really she was her own person–and one of your best characters so far. Loved her. Loved BEAT. Thanks for your comments. I find people often see themselves where they aren’t and sometimes project themselves on to characters that having nothing to do with them. You never know.

  3. Amen, Katie.

    This should be a disclaimer at the beginning of every novel, explaining what fiction is and how one is supposed to read it…

  4. Right? Thank you, Tyler. I think every fiction writer I know has this problem at one time or another. And while that essay was sort of silly, it’s really a serious topic. Too often I’ve found that friends or family members get their feelings hurt because they see themselves in characters and usually I wasn’t even thinking about them. Aren’t we supposed to be able to identify with the characters in a story? Isn’t that what makes successful fiction?

    P.S. I’ve pre-ordered “How The Mistakes Were Made”. Can’t wait to read your new novel.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    I love this!
    Perfect analogy. I often struggle with my writing and what to leave in and what to leave out and wonder whether I have any right to use a pinch of this and a pinch of that and stir it all up into a lifestew.
    I am alway amazed at how people read themselves into my writing when in most cases they didn’t even get past the first draft.

  6. Hi Zara,
    It really does seem like all of us fiction writers have to grapple with this problem–all the time. I showed this little essay to one of the people who had an issue with one of my books, thinking it would help him understand the process and maybe calm him down. It backfired. He’s not speaking to me now. I guess he took the essay personally, thought it was all about him. Pretty funny actually.

    Thanks for your comment.

  7. Immer die neuesten und besten Bücher im Überblick…

    [...]Katie Arnoldi | It’s Not You, It’s Me | The Nervous Breakdown[...]…

  8. janet buchan says:

    Point Dume was a perfect Beach read – my top read this summer…
    along with the Wentworths & your first book Chemical Pink…when will Chemical Pink come out as a movie… it would definitely be a great movie………why do I see Hillary Swank as Aurora

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