Characters with secrets—and stories—to tell
by Lisa Unger
In some respects, the germ for Darkness, My Old Friend took hold a long time ago. Its prequel, Fragile, was loosely based on an event from my own past. In high school, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered. The event—a shocking, horrifying thing—reverberated through the small town where I grew up. And I felt its impact for many years. I wouldn’t say the incident haunted me, but my thoughts returned to that time quite often. Finally, the story, or at least a heavily fictionalized version of it, found its way onto the page when I sat down to write Fragile.
During that process, I met Jones Cooper. When he first showed up in Fragile, he was the husband of my main character Maggie and I didn’t think he had an especially big role to play. As it turned out, he was a critical character. The entire book hinged on his past deeds, and how he’d sought to escape them.
When Fragile was done, I was still thinking about Jones. He and I don’t have that much in common. He is an older guy, in his late 40s. He has retired from his career as a detective, and he isn’t totally sure what he’s going to do next. His marriage is under a tremendous strain as he deals with how his past actions have affected his present, and what they mean for his future. He’s in therapy (very reluctantly). I kept wondering: How is he going to move forward? He has this tremendous darkness within him; how is he going to conquer that? What is he going to do with his life? He can’t just putter around the house! He’s too smart, too interesting.
Usually when I have that many questions and worries about a character, I have no choice but to explore him further on the page. And so began Darkness, My Old Friend, the next chapter of the story.
In a safe, picture-perfect town, the very worst possible thing occurred on a bright and sunny day when all was exactly as it should be.
We had to remain in The Hollows, of course, because Jones is part of that place, and it is part of him. This fictional town from Fragile was at first just a place I came up with because it was similar, if not identical, to the area where I grew up—some hybrid of that spot and an ideal town I had in my head. Near to the city but removed enough to be peaceful and close to nature, The Hollows had a hip, picturesque downtown center, safe streets, a coffee shop, a yoga studio. Again, I didn’t think very much of it at first. But it too evolved and became something more than I expected.
As I did with Jones, I came to sense a great darkness within The Hollows. It has a history, a spirit and a personality. It has wants and needs; it has an agenda. It’s not malicious precisely. Not exactly. I’m not quite sure what The Hollows is up to, to be honest. But I delved a little deeper in Darkness, My Old Friend. And I’m not done with it yet. Or, rather, it’s not done with me.
Shortly after I started writing, a girl by the name of Willow Graves appeared in the narrative. All I knew about her was her misery at living in The Hollows; she hated it. "THE HOLLOWS SUCKS," was what she was writing in her notebook when I first saw her, sitting in her English class, bored to tears. Her mother Bethany, a best-selling novelist, had moved them from New York City after a bitter divorce from Willow’s stepfather. Willow was getting into trouble. So Bethany thought that The Hollows, far from Manhattan and all its temptations, was a safer place for her wild child. Little did she know that trouble finds a girl like Willow anywhere, maybe especially in The Hollows.
I had a lot more in common with Willow than with Jones. In many ways, with her quasi-gothic look, and her rebel’s heart, her penchant for—ahem—storytelling, she reminds me of the girl I was a million years ago. She was out of place, the misfit in a small town, filled with lots of self-imposed angst. She was sure that anyplace was better than The Hollows. I felt for Willow, wished I could tell her to just hang in there. And to try, try, to stay away from that dark place inside. If you follow, I wanted her to know, you can’t always find your way home. But most of us have to learn that lesson that hard way, and Willow was no exception.
It’s the juxtaposition of disparate things that fascinates me: Dark and light, death and life, bad and good. The thin, blurry line between those things keeps me up at night, churning out the pages. And when that line exists within a character, as it does with most of the people who populate Darkness, My Old Friend, I am obsessed with it.
I suspect that my obsession with this idea began more than 25 years ago, when I was a girl, not unlike Willow, living in a place not unlike The Hollows. In a safe, picture-perfect town, the very worst possible thing occurred on a bright and sunny day when all was exactly as it should be. I know Fragile came from there, and Darkness, My Old Friend is certainly an evolution of that story. In a way, maybe all my books began there. Maybe I’m still the girl trying to understand all the many different ways something so horrible could happen to someone so innocent on an ordinary day.
Best-selling writer Lisa Unger takes on the dark side of small-town life in Darkness, My Old Friend, her sixth novel. She divides her time between New York City and Florida. Visit her website for more information.