This week, I thought I'd share a little about how "Ask Me if I'm Happy" came about. In some ways, it's just like most people believe it would be:
I got an idea, and I wrote it down. It took two years of writing to get the whole idea down, though. And then it morphed and changed and became something very different from what I'd initially imagined.
It almost always does. Change, I mean.
The origin of the story was this: I watched an episode of Samantha Brown's Passport to Europe which took place in Bologna. There is a segment in that episode where she visits with a Bolognese family for dinner, and while I listened to them talking to her, I felt suddenly homesick. Or more accurately, I felt homesick for my students at the school where I teach. The Bolognese accent is different from a Reggiano accent, but the similarities were strong enough to bring my students to mind.
I continued watching the show, and started pondering what it would be like to have a native Bolognese taking me around the city. I love Bologna, and have loved it since I first visited with my husband several years ago. I go to the bookshops there, I have seen a couple of concerts there, and I just love the general atmosphere of the place.
Anyway, that night, I had a dream which took place in Bologna. It was a dream of the "Watching it on a movie screen" variety, where I was not an active participant, just a viewer. I saw a handsome man meet a plain but pretty woman on a train. I saw the newspaper headlines proclaiming a transportation strike, which kept her in the city. I saw him take her to lunch, and then seduce her, only to find his own personal conflict emerge when she left him. The would-be Casanova was caught in his own trap, and his prey escaped to return to her former life in another place.
The images stayed with me all day long. The sexy, sensual edge of the dream's images wouldn't leave me alone. This was a story I needed to write.
And someday, I might write it, too.
Instead, as I sat down and put pen to paper, the characters made themselves heard. Davide (as he was called) insisted that he wouldn't do such things. He was a nice guy, not a love-em-and-leave-em sort. Emily (as she was always called) said much the same. She was shy, and lacked self-confidence, and no matter how mad she was at her husband she wouldn't just run off for a dalliance with a stranger.
I had to change almost all of the story. I wrote it as a short story - roughly fifteen or twenty pages - called it "Lo Sciopero" (the Strike) and worked on it for the rest of my stay in the States. Now Davide was a gallant stranger offering Emily assistance when her trip to the US was complicated by the strike. He was a perfect gentleman who showed her the tenderness she needed to get past a difficult moment in her life, and nothing more.
But that didn't quite work either. I had to write more. And more.
The kernel of truth in the first version of the story survived. A friend critiqued it and made a suggestion which pulled the whole thing together. But the short story became a novella, and then the novella grew.
Davide insisted on telling more of the story. "You're not finished yet! What about what happened in Milano? What about when I came home?"
"Yeah!" Emily cried. "What about when I went home? What about the messages we wrote each other? What about...? What about...?"
Fine. I wrote it all down. I finished the tale two years after I started, after changes and rewrites and edits and agonizing hours spent deciding what could be cut, and what I believed needed to stay. And then cutting some of that, anyway.
An entire novella was added, then axed. With more work, I'll probably offer that separately, as a story of its own.
And, yes, there's much more to this process. This is just an overview. No story just "flows" out of a writer - well, maybe for some. Maybe when I've been writing steadily for a couple more years, I'll find the process easier. I doubt it, though. After all is said and done, this is me offering a piece of me to the audience, and that's never an easy thing to do.
But I can't stop doing it.
I hope you don't mind...