Do you ever wonder why an author chooses a certain word or includes a particular detail in her book? Do you ever read a scene and think: Why did the writer take the story’s action in that direction? At Figment, we like to know the story behind the story. Which is why we were super excited when Jessica Warman, the author of Beautiful Lies, was nice enough to share a scene from her new book and give a little insight into her writing process.
Beautiful Lies is the story of identical twins, Rachel and Alice. They are so identical even their aunt and uncle, whom they’ve lived with since their parents died, can’t tell them apart. But it’s not just their looks that connect them. The two share a deep psychic bond: When one experiences pain, the other exhibits the exact same signs of distress.
In this scene, Rachel is begging her Aunt Sharon to call the police. She’s worried because Alice has been missing since the night before. Aunt Sharon and her husband are slow to react because Alice has a history of running away. Also in the scene: Sharon’s 19-year-old son, Charlie, who suffers from a development disorder, and a cat called Linda McCartney.
You can read the entire scene here. Below are some juicy excerpts with thoughtful notes from Jessica about why and how she wrote the scene:
Jessica writes: Lately, I’ve developed this thing about putting a box of kittens into almost everything I write. Part of the reason I think it tends to work well in my writing—particularly in this scene—is because my books are pretty dark, and they usually address some unpleasant subjects. Throwing a box of kittens into the mix has always felt like an effective way to juxtapose a heavy, foreboding mood or atmosphere with something gentle and innocent. At the same time, newborn kittens are quite disgusting (I’ve seen my fair share of feline births, so you can trust me on this one). By plopping a box of them into the middle of the kitchen floor in this scene, I was trying to accomplish something very specific. I wanted to emphasize their innocence, and the beauty of this family standing around, watching Linda McCartney the cat give birth—but I also wanted to add a hint of grotesqueness to the atmosphere. Nothing overwhelming—just enough to make the reader feel mildly unsettled. So when Rachel walks into the kitchen, she brings her own feelings of distress into the room, but they merge pretty quickly with the oddity of the scene that’s already taking place.
It was important to me to note how the kittens are born with their membrane intact, because that’s also how Alice and Rachel were born. The idea was to first put this image/concept in the reader’s mind with regard to something innocent and natural (the birth of a kitten—what could be more innocent?), and juxtapose it later on with something more bizarre and unsettling.
Although his character plays a small role in the book, Charlie is very important to the story for multiple reasons, none of which are nearly as crucial to the plot as they are to the exposition of some of the larger players’ personalities. For instance, the way Aunt Sharon interacts with her son says a lot about who she is. Without giving too much away, I wanted this book to speak to the gray areas of life, rather than sorting people or events into “good” or “evil” categories.
The focus of the scene is on the kittens, but it was important to pepper in subtle references to Rachel’s unique experience of the situation—the idea being that what makes her unique should always be present somewhere in the reader’s mind.
We see all of the other characters react before Rachel (or the reader) has any clue as to why they’re so horrified. Aunt Sharon drops her mug—her special mug that Charlie made for her—so as it breaks into pieces on the floor, there’s a physical shattering of this object of innocence.
Charlie isn’t just grossed out any longer—now he’s actually scared. Even the cat is freaking out.
This paragraph isn’t meant to provide relief from the scene’s tension so much as a pause. It doesn’t build or recede as much as it lingers—the horror of what Rachel sees on the wall creates a sort of temporary paralysis, and for just an instant her thoughts go back to a far more innocent time in the kitchen. Despite this, a little bit of reality nudges its way in when she says, “You can’t imagine the mess.” The line can apply to both situations: the one she’s recalling, and the one she’s presently experiencing.
I have to admit, this is one of my favorite images from the entire book. I came up with it years ago, and I was so psyched when I was finally able to work it into a story!
The idea that social and familial conventions break down in times of extreme distress was important to emphasize, but I wanted to do it in a very, very subtle way. So while it’s not exactly shocking that Uncle Jeff would peel off his shirt to cover his niece’s wound—it’s certainly not obscene—it’s still a slight nudging of the boundaries of their family dynamics. (Under normal circumstances, he probably wouldn’t walk around the house shirtless in front of his nieces.)
Aunt Sharon is somewhat of a humorless character, but every so often I wanted to give the reader just a hint of the possibility that she used to be someone different than the person she’s become. Although it’s very subtle, the light pink toenails are one of these hints.
It was important to me that the whole tone of the room escalated very quickly, from a temporary moment of reprieve (when Aunt Sharon concedes to Rachel that it’s time to call the police) to complete chaos. Essentially, Rachel’s emotions sort of burst open (literally) and flood the room, affecting everyone and everything—from the kittens to the broken mug to her blood smeared on the wall.
Her family’s attempt to restore order to the scene is juxtaposed with the private terror building within Rachel. Everyone around her thinks they’re working hard and fast to make the situation better. Only Rachel understands that things are about to get much, much worse.
Are you inspired by Jessica’s writing? Enter the Beautiful Lies Flash-Fiction Contest for your chance to win all four of Jessica’s novels and three other great books!