Behind the Story

August 17, 2015, 11:58 pm

Before I had my “pitch” ready, people would ask: “What’s your new book about?” In reply, I would juggle a bunch of words in the air: father, daughter, Afghanistan, India, introversion, bravery. Whoever had innocently asked the question would then look at me like maybe I didn’t know the answer myself. In fact, I hadn’t randomly drawn a bunch of words from a hat. The seeds for THE LIGHT OF HIDDEN FLOWERS were planted much more naturally.

Years ago, I happened to be in the audience and listening to a speaker at a business conference. The guy was one of those larger-than-life, charismatic types—a born storyteller. I had heard him a few times before over the years, and I always straightened in my seat when he strutted onstage. How does he remember so many stories? I’d think, because he never consulted a note. He was a Johnny-on-the-spot, always ready with the perfect anecdote and the Kaboom! punchline to drive home his point.

A few years later, I happened upon Susan Cain’s seminal work, QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING (2012), which struck me as being in the almost exact opposite mode of the Kaboom! guy’s. Cain dispels the notion that quiet, or introverted, individuals fall short as contributors to our society. To the contrary, she asserts that people who listen and think before taking action are often more successful than their impulsive and louder counterparts. Her research was especially insightful as she studied the financial industry and the last recession, where much of the trouble was arguably exacerbated by the gregarious rainmakers on Wall Street who prevailed over many “quieter” whistle-blowers.

Along the way, a few nuggets from that dynamic speaker along with the concept of introversion, merged, and I got an idea for a novel. My protagonist would be introverted—brilliant but quiet. She would work with her father, the charismatic superman in her life. But the father would leave her. He would get sick and die, and she would have to stand on her own two feet.

From there, the flowers grew. The story of lost love, the travel to India, the responsibility of adulthood for my once diffident protagonist. At some point I realized my character was on a modern-day hero’s journey. My kids had taught me about Joseph Campbell and the monomyth, so that made writing this novel especially meaningful. There’s a little bit of them woven into the words.

I crafted Missy first. She’s book smart, wry, quiet. A girl who aced every test she’d ever taken but hadn’t followed her dreams for fear of leaving her father behind.

Missy’s closest relation is her father, Frank, whom she loves dearly. For his backstory, I made Frank an army guy. He often ruminates about the Vietnam War. His personality is optimistic, expectant, hopeful. He has fond recollections of his buddies from the war, but I had to be sure not to mischaracterize his affection for his friends as a warm regard for the war itself. To gain the proper perspective, I turned to Tim O’Brien’s unrivaled THE THINGS THEY CARRIED (1990). O’Brien didn’t believe in the Vietnam War; to the contrary, he believed it to be unjust. So he takes a few days in a cabin in the woods in Northern Minnesota and considers whether to dodge the draft. But he gives in to pressure—societal pressure, small-town pressure—and in the end, goes to war . . . because he is embarrassed not to.

I decided to make Missy’s beloved, Joe, an amputee war veteran who had served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. To gain perspective, I turned to Adele Levine’s groundbreaking work, RUN, DON’T WALK: THE CURIOUS AND CHAOTIC LIFE OF A PHYSICAL THERAPIST (2015). Levine is a physical therapist who worked with amputees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for six years in the glassed-in gymnasium at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She relies on heartbreaking grace and humor to tell her story and the stories of the vets she worked with. She writes that she initially took the job at Walter Reed out of convenience, but years into it—when waking with night terrors, dreaming of a floating head with no limbs—she knew that the job had consumed her from the inside out.

I also turned to Phil Klay’s REDEPLOYMENT (2015) in hopes of gaining perspective on the painful adjustments a vet must make upon coming home. Where’s a guy supposed to rest his hands now that he’s not holding a gun, having done so for many months? After seven months in a war zone, how odd is it to stand in the dressing room at an American Eagle Outfitters in a mall, trying on clothes your wife is handing you? What’s it like to walk down a street in Anytown, USA, without scanning the rooftops, without having your antennae up for anyone or anything that might kill you? How do you just get back to normal—to an alertness of “white”—safe—when you’re always at “orange”?

Lastly, I consulted a real-life marine, Colonel Matt Day of the U.S. Marine Corps. Matt is a friend of our family, and while I’m typically a bit shy about asking for help (a little like Missy!), I asked Matt to review the sections that pertained to being a marine and to the USMC in general. He corrected some of my word choices, phrases, and descriptions, but more than anything else he contributed, Matt’s commentary made the experience of war real. His firsthand accounts of IEDs, night terrors, and the lifelong haul (physically and emotionally) that our service people carry hit me straight in the heart. Knowing that this is for real—that our men and women are out there, fighting this fight every day—my gratitude for their sacrifice is great.

Having realized I was writing a modern-day hero’s journey, I knew my protagonist had to actually take a journey. And given Missy’s fear of flying (both literally and figuratively), hers would have to be a faraway adventure, so I dove in and began my research on India. I watched videos—tourist videos, political videos, charitable videos. I read from the pages of UNICEF publications, and those of other philanthropic organizations. Eager to immerse myself in the details of everyday life in India, I turned to THE LEAVING OF THINGS (2014) by Jay Antani, an informative novel about a teen-aged boy who returns with his family to India from their home in Wisconsin.

As for Missy’s profession and her desire to travel and contribute to some larger good as a philanthropist, those details were drawn partly from my own life. I spent many years as a financial adviser. And in college I studied political science, and I was very absorbed in “country watching” and had a strong desire to travel. I wasn’t quite Peace Corps material but was interested in the world nonetheless.

As with every story I’ve written, THE LIGHT OF HIDDEN FLOWERS started with just a concept: a girl and her father. The concept crystallized and grew. Characters developed, the various levels of plot deepened, connections were woven. And lastly, always lastly, evidence of theme bubbled to the surface. How we define ourselves, how others see us, how our memory aids us and fails us. How our greatest assets are often disguised as shortcomings. How each day is a search for hidden flowers.

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