Being one of those writers from the "my characters tell me what happens" school, I'm endlessly surprised by the things I learn about my characters while I write the story. In this regard, they really do feel like friends I'm spending time with, getting to know them over time. Sometimes, the surprises are astounding.
Emily had a lot of those surprises in store for me from the start. When I first wrote the short story which became Ask Me if I'm Happy, I confess she wasn't terribly well-formed in my own mind. Over time, she shaped up on the page, but initially all I knew about her was that she was leaving Italy after a fair amount of time there, and she spoke Italian better than I did. I didn't know whether she was married, divorced or widowed. I didn't know precisely how old she was. I didn't really know for sure what she looked like, either.
Soon enough I understood she was nervous, and scared. She was frustrated at the obstacles keeping her in Italy. She prized honesty because she'd been lied to in previous relationships. Her attraction to Davide was natural and unhurried, and it was part of her becoming honest with herself once more.
The story expanded and went deeper into her head. I found she was prone to self-doubt – well, who isn't? – and that she struggled to move forward from her own past mistakes. I learned that she'd been alone for a long time, and she'd practically been abandoned to her despair to see her worst fears come true. I also found she was stubborn and bullheaded, usually at the worst possible times.
When she described herself in the story, it wasn't Emily who provided the words. Instead, it was the voice of Jacopo, her ex, who spoke – and he didn't speak kindly. He described Emily as mousy and dumpy – words which, ironically, weren't in his English lexicon until he met her. He even used the phrase thirty-four-year-old-woman as though this were some sort of insult.
My heart ached for her. I tried to determine what exactly had happened to Emily which sent her on this downward trajectory. Why was she so vulnerable? How was she so easily manipulated? Why did Jacopo choose Emily if he would be so unhappy with a woman like her?
It came to me in a rush, while discussing the plot's possibilities with a friend of mine while we walked through the city center. In the middle of a piazza not unlike the ones she would walk with Davide, I understood the source of Emily's pain: it was all I could do not to start crying on the spot. For a moment, it was as though Emily stood there with me, her head bowed so I couldn't see her face, waiting for me to give voice to her pain.
The linchpin to the story was given to me just like that. When I got home, I sat at my writing desk and cried while I made my notes and typed them out. It really was like having a friend tell me a devastating secret she'd held back from telling, out of fear of being judged.
For all her quiet, mousy tendencies, Emily was no blushing innocent nor was she brazen and careless with her affections. She'd been devastated by her father's death when she was a teenager, and she'd acted out, as teenagers do. Her mother, who was always distant, became more so in spite of the fact that she was all Emily had, and her daughter was all she had. So, Emily sought affection wherever she could find it, and it cost her dearly.
Writing all of this was difficult for me, but with every revelation, Emily became more real, and more realistic. She wasn't at all perfect. She had her flaws, and with each choice she made, with each tough path she chose, I found myself rooting for her.
Of course I hope that anyone who reads Ask Me if I'm Happy will feel the same way. I will always hope that my efforts to put Emily's (and Davide's) story on the page will be as moving an experience to read as it was for me to write. My constant refrain, as always, is "Time will tell" – because it always does.
And what we hear in the meantime is often quite surprising.