Writing the Novel That Changes Your Life
I’ve just come upon the one year anniversary of completing my first traditionally published novel entitled Everything, the story of one family’s journey through addiction. This milestone naturally took me back to the mindset I was in during that constructive but wearisome time; it reminded me how close I’d come to scrapping the book altogether, once I started doing all the necessary research. I remember asking myself so many questions at the outset: what exactly would people want to read about a topic like addiction? How much did I really know about the subject? How much would anyone with firsthand experience be willing to discuss with me? And how would I, an obscure Lesbian fiction author, find a way to strike a responsible balance that would have the impact it needed? In finding the answers to all these queries, I had the regretful discovery that the central character, Jolán De Carlo, might as well have been a nuclear physicist, rather than a heroin addict, and the sixty-two pages of research notes I’d had thus far still wasn’t enough to get reader anywhere near the reality of addiction. Some told me to leave the idea alone completely. They said it was too far out of my realm, way beyond my non-addicted scope. “Leave the smack books to the smack heads”, was the initial advice from one of my research ‘consultants’. “You’re never gonna get this shit right,” said another. “Write what you know, not what you think you know.”
But something wouldn’t let me listen to that, and so I pressed on. I found people willing to share their stories, provided they could do so with absolute anonymity. Fair enough—done. I read suggested works written by William S. Burroughs and Luke Davies and Irvine Welsh, just to name a very select few. I watched all the recommended documentaries ten times over. At the time, I was working in housekeeping at a local hospital, and so I grilled all my co-worker nurses and phlebotomists and lab technicians for the necessary medical details, much to the discomfort of some who were likely suspicious of my motives. I went to drug treatment centers and interviewed anyone who would to talk to me, counselors and recovering addicts alike. I stayed up too late on work nights, smoked too many cigarettes, and drank entirely too much red wine. I became a member of two different online discussion forums, both designed as support groups for addicts and their families, and I spent hours upon hours reading posts and participating in discussion threads, the stories from which broke my heart and made me angry. I learned just how little I knew about true heroin addiction, and when I began to learn what I did need to know, I realized that everything I thought I knew prior to this venture…was wrong. I’d known only stereotypes, social myths, After School Specials, and caricatures. I wanted my readers to not only be entertained but better informed, so I set out to shatter those images and replace them with something more accurate, regardless of how scary or ugly or disturbing those images might be.You just can’t sugarcoat this kind of truth, not if you’re going to do it right.
It wasn’t long before I was struck with the need to do more than just write a fiction novel about thisproblem—I needed to do something to fixit, to help those struggling with a real-life nightmare. I wasn’t even finished with the manuscript when I found myself ready for a career change. So, I enrolled in the spring semester at Darton State College and began taking classes to be a drug and alcohol counselor, and as I write this now, I am three months away from state certification.
This subjectneeds so much more attention and awareness. The tale of addiction depicted inEverythingis indeed fictional, but the daily struggle of an addict is very, very real. We’ve seen it with the recent death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, all the while the national heroin addiction rate continues to rise, having spiked over sixty percentin the past decade.And though I myself have never been addicted to anything but good ol’ caffeine and nicotine, I’ve witnessed the troubling effects of substance abusethrough family members and childhood schoolfriends. I’ve been that loved one who dreads the telephone ringing each day, for fear of the worst possible news. In fact, two of my creative research consultants died a month before Everything’srelease; they both OD’d before ever seeing the finished project they’d helped to create. I think it was in that moment, hearing that news from a mutual acquaintance, when I truly understood what this novel meant and what I had been doing for the past year. It was the humbling splash of cold water that woke me up to the significance of this topic.
My aunt, who is a retired psychiatric nurse, as well as an addictions counselor, gave me this advice while emailing back and forth about ideas for the story line. She wrote:
“After thirty-five years in the medical field, I’ve come to care very greatly about both the mentally ill and the substance addicted. Just be sure there is balance in your story. The written word is very powerful and comes with some stewardship responsibilities to those who are weaker than the author. Don’t be an author that has ignored that concept for the almighty royalty buck.”
I do hope I was able to straddle that line between good entertainment and professional responsibility. So far, it seems I’ve done my job, and I’m grateful that she illuminated that concept for me before I made the mistake of sensationalism for profit, which we see so often in the book world, the music business, and in the film industry. My goal was always to “edu-tain”, and looking back over the past year sinceEverything was completed, I realize I must continue to do the same with all my future projects.
Carole Wolf is from Allentown, PA and currently lives in Columbus, GA with her partner Yoko Hirose. She has a B.A. in English Literature from Columbus State University, and she has been writing for twenty-five years. Her goal as an author is to write novels that address sensitive social issues, which not only affect lesbian women but all women, and she hopes this will help open up lesbian fiction to mainstream readers. Carole’s other passion is music; she is a music producer and has been playing the drums since she was eleven years old. She has played with three local bands and has produced music for several aspiring singers. She has three four-legged children–a German Shepherd/Rottweiler mix named Caesar, a Malamute mix named Alex, and a Tabby cat named Jewel. Carole is currently working on her certification to be a Drug and Alcohol Addictions Counselor.