During visits to bookstores and book clubs, I’ve often been asked by readers how I was able to write Letter to My Daughter from a woman’s point of view. Obviously, I’m not a woman, and I don’t even have a daughter. So how did I manage to get inside the narrator’s head and skin, both the adult Laura (who’s anxiously awaiting word from her runaway daughter) and the teenage Laura (who’s falling in love for the very first time)? How did I realistically portray what she felt and thought at two very different moments in her life?
First of all, I should admit that what I’ve done isn’t that unusual in fiction. Look at any novel written in the standard omniscient third person (he said, she said, they said), and you’ll see that the author likely speaks through a whole world of characters who do not share his or her gender, let alone age, nationality, race, or profession. James Patterson does this. Dan Brown does this. J. K. Rowling does this. (Stephanie Meyer doesn’t.)
Still, I understand how readers might wonder how a writer can pull off this kind of ventriloquist act. For me, the challenge lies not so much in capturing the larger emotions of a person or situation, but in rendering the smaller idiosyncratic thoughts and gestures of a character.
Think of universal feelings such as hope, fear, fury, jealousy, love. I’m convinced that people everywhere, no matter their gender, no matter their environment, experience these feelings the same way. The frustration felt by a billionaire Wall Street banker unable to close a deal is the same as the frustration felt by a Mumbai rickshaw driver who’s stuck in traffic and can’t get to his fare. In Letter to My Daughter, it wasn’t that difficult for me to wiggle into these broader feelings that Laura has—her anguish, her regret, her joy. I know those feelings. We all do.
The hard part, though, is in getting the particulars right. What features, for example, does a fifteen-year-old girl notice when she looks at a boy she admires? I’m pretty sure they’re not the same features that a boy notices when he looks at a girl. Or how does a teenage girl react when she’s being grounded by her parents—her actions, her thoughts, her arguments—as opposed to how I might have reacted in a similar situation when I was a teenager?
This is where the real work of fiction writing comes in. For me, the only way to accomplish it is through deep and careful imagining. I try to put myself in that person’s skin and see, hear, and feel what they see, hear, and feel, from the inside out, as it were. The danger always, the lazy way to do it, is to write from the outside in—to sketch a generalized picture of “a teenage girl having a fight with her parents,” for instance, by using what we’ve all seen before in books or movies or on TV.
Of course, writing from the inside out of a character is still no guarantee that I, or any writer, will get the details right. But when, by happenstance and deep imagining, this kind of writing succeeds, the result is that we as readers forget for a moment who we are, who the writer is, and even where we are, and for a few blissful pages we’re able to disappear completely into a different body in a different world.