“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about my protagonist, Jane Benjamin, as I get ready to launch my third book about her, Poster Girl, November 14. I’ve been trying to connect the dots, looking backward, to ask myself why I wrote three historical mysteries about this particular young woman. Is there something about her fictional life that I needed to explore or explain?
I made a list of things I find interesting about her.
- She’s difficult.
- She’s funny.
- She’s selfish.
- She’s smart.
- She’s ambitious.
- She’s underestimated.
- She’s brave.
- She’s different.
- She cares.
But how did she get this way?
When I first started writing about her, I pictured a one hundred year old woman, in the year 2020, an iconic pop culture figure. A famous gossip columnist with a secret heroic life. A wizened crone who hadn’t yet lost her dangerous sense of humor or perception. I wondered, how would such a woman become all this, if she started as an impoverished, tomato-picking Okie?
I decided to reverse-engineer that, working backward to see the kinds of experiences that would make Jane become successful and famous and cynical and secretly hopeful.
I’d been thinking about all this when I recently came across a pair of pop songs that tapped into what I feel about Jane.
In “What was I made for?” composers Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell express the longing of a young woman to find her purpose, to be able to live a life that adds up to something. It’s a simple, honest song. I think it gets at the yearning young Jane has too, a yearning to take on a bigger shape than others have allotted for her. Not just to be be “something you paid for.”
In a second song, “I used to be young,” Miley Cyrus, Gregory Aldae Hein, and Michael Pollack show that even a newly thirty year old woman may look back at the life she’s lived so far, at the choices she’s made, and feel simultaneous remorse about and acceptance of those choices. She may recognize that to be young, trying so hard to live, means also making mistakes.
It almost feels like I’d been listening to those songs while writing these three books about a young, difficult woman who will become a richly complex old woman with the kind of power to make things she cares about happen in her world.
These paired desires to find and do what one was made for, and to accept everything that one has been so far, is just as relevant to me as a sixty-one year old writer/teacher/wife/mother/grandmother/daughter/friend as it is to those 21 and 30 year old singer/songwriters. And to Jane.
In fact, I’ve noticed, almost everybody I know wants to discover and do what we were made for, and to absolve ourselves for our mistakes in the years en route to it.
Those drives keep me writing.
Do they play a role in your life?