It's inevitable. There are certain questions every writer is asked throughout their career, and this is one of the most persistent: "Is the book autobiographical?"
Since Ask Me if I'm Happy's release, I've already been asked that question more times than I'd ever dreamed would be possible. The answer is always a kindly-delivered but emphatic "No," and most folks are satisfied with that. However, some aren't, and they persist, delivering a variation on that theme:
"How much of you is in the book, then?"
This is where it gets tricky for me, because the answer is "None," and the answer is also "All of me."
Many writers will say the same, or something similar, so I know I'm not alone. Every character in every book I write has some part of me in them. I don't mean this in a completely literal sense, of course – it's not that I've assigned some of my own traits to every character that crosses the page.
And yet, in some small way, perhaps I have. Some traits are direct and obvious, and I'd be hard pressed to say they're not shared by me.
For example, in Ask Me if I'm Happy, Emily Miller is an ex-pat American involved with an Italian man. Right off the bat, then, she has a lot in common with me. What's more, she shares something else with me, which is illustrated when she has this to say about returning to Italy after time away:
“Anyway, every time I come back to Italy, I dread it. Just a little, but I do dread it.”
“Why is that?”
“Oh, it’s just... I don’t know. Even this time, I had a little feeling of ‘Ugh, here I go again’ before I got on the plane. I couldn’t wait to get back and I was looking forward to seeing you, but I still felt that ‘Ugh’ feeling.”
“Dimmi: exactly what do you dread so much?”
“I guess it’s the whole mixed bag. It’s a beautiful place and it’s full of beautiful people. Sometimes, that makes me feel like maybe I don’t really belong here. Then there’s that whole different rhythm of life to readjust to every time.” She shook her head and shrugged. “Sometimes I can just jump right back into it—like this time, I got over the jet lag pretty quickly, my Italian hadn’t suffered too much and it wasn’t so hard.”
“And then,” she continued, “there’s the fact that once I’m here, I’m thrilled to be here again. Almost every time I’ve come back, I’ve had another little ‘honeymoon’ period, you know? Where everything I see just seems so beautiful, I can’t believe I wanted to leave it in the first place.
“I fall in love with this place every time I step out of the airport. Even the people who drive me crazy make me want to grab them and give them a hug. Well, except for the guy peeing under the overpass.”
“Who is that?” Davide laughed harder than ever and Emily did the same.
“Seriously, you haven’t noticed? There’s always a man peeing under the overpass—especially when you leave the airport.”
“Oddio, Emilia. This is too much.”
“It’s true, Davide! Watch the next time you go to the airport—I’m telling you, you’ll see him! It might even be same guy.”
“So you think there’s a serial overpass pisser? Really?”
“Well, okay. I’m not sure it’s him every time. I don’t look that closely, to be honest.”
Other things Emily clearly has in common with me include her dress sense (she loves sweaters and jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers), her sense of humor (see above) and what attracts her to someone.
Which brings me to another question I'm frequently asked: How much do my male characters have in common with me? And how much of my real life is in my work?
The character of Davide was influenced by me, but also by my husband and by other people I've had the pleasure to know in my life. For instance, some of the conversations Emily has with Davide (such as the one above) are very similar to the conversations I've had with my husband. One or two scenes in Ask Me if I'm Happy even started out as nearly verbatim recollections of the mini "lectures" Alessandro is prone to delivering, which were then tweaked to suit the characters better.
However, Davide's fatigue after a day spent speaking English with Emily is something he has in common with me. I know first-hand how exhausting it can be to try to think and speak for an extended length of time in a language different from my own, after all. I see Davide as a man outside of his own time, a gentleman and a scholar, and his sense of being lost in a time and place which no longer seems to value these attributes is something I've observed all around me, in family and friends alike.
Of course, there are negative aspects to these characters, too – and to most of the characters I write. If there's a chance to go in depth, I will write them as they are, warts and all. I believe that it's vital for a reader to see these imperfections if they really want to sympathize, empathize and believe in these characters as real people.
Sometimes the characters are aware of their flaws: Emily knows she has a tendency to "dig in her heels" at the worst moment possible in a given situation, yet she is helpless to do anything else when challenged. Davide's past has embittered him somewhat to the world around him and even though he tries not to let it show, his latent anger and resentment sometimes surface.
One of my favorite threads in the story involves the repeated, minor interactions Davide has with a rather unpleasant elderly gentleman who lives in his building. I wanted people to see a slightly less gentlemanly, more natural side to Davide, and his slightly antagonistic encounters with Signore Montanari were (I have to admit) a fun way to do it.
…he resumed running, this time for home.
There wasn’t even a breeze as he headed downhill, carefully picking his way and gaining speed.
One, two, three, four—one, two, three, four…
Soon the soothing repetition was back in place and he concentrated on that for a while. The closer he got to the city, the hotter the day became, and he reduced his pace to a quick walk by the time he reached the center of town. Winding back to his palazzo, the idea of a shower and a nap to escape the heat had already taken on an irresistible appeal.
Stepping inside the lobby area of his building, he paused to check his mailbox, even though he could see the space behind the narrow Plexiglas window was empty. Glancing down he found a jagged thread of blood trailing down from his knee to soak into his sock. With a sigh, he turned to ascend the stairs and tugged his shirt up to wipe his face again.
“Eh, Magnani!” an elderly voice called. Davide paused halfway up to the first landing to see who it was.
“Sì?” he called back, before understanding he’d have to go back down to find out what they wanted. Once in the lobby, he braced himself for what he knew would be an unpleasant encounter. “Signor Montanari, come sta?”
“Prendi la tua posta. Your mail was in my box again,” the old man scolded, as though Davide had done it himself.
“Mi dispiace; I’ve told them several times they’re putting it in the wrong box. I don’t know why they do.”
Mr. Montanari grunted in response and looked Davide up and down, wrinkling his nose in obvious distaste for the younger man’s unkempt condition. Annoyed, Davide again pulled up the bottom of his t-shirt and wiped his face with it, exposing his stomach, well aware this would lead to even more unpleasantness in the future.
For now, his neighbor did his best to turn on his heel—a shuffle step punctuated with the rubberized thump of his cane—and pretend to ignore him.
So, do I share any of these possibly unpleasant traits with them? Perhaps, yes. Or, perhaps not. At the very least, I can recognize shades of myself and my loved ones in every character I write, which further enriches the experience of writing them.
I hope it enriches the experience of reading them, as well.