Gravity Books, the Booktrope imprint that picked up The Sad Girl, is about “stories of trauma and recovery.” It’s more than a little intimidating to be considered worthy of that imprint when I see some of the stories the authors bring. Sarah Fader lives with panic disorder. Lindsay Fischer is a domestic abuse survivor. Kristin Seaborg lives with epilepsy. There are rape and molestation survivors there, and people living with bipolar disorder.
And then there’s me.
More than once I’ve wondered how I belong there. The Sad Girl is about a guy discovering he had a daughter, finding out she’s dead, then learning she might be alive. What makes Danny Cumberland so special? Why does his story belong with Gravity?
When I first wrote the short story that grew into the novel, I didn’t give much thought to Danny’s story. That is, I built up a backstory in my head: Midwestern guy who joined the Navy, had a fling on a weekend pass, went to prison, and tried to behave once he got out of prison. But I didn’t really think about his story, even when I went on to turn The Sad Girl into a novel, and then a series.
So what is his story?
What’s his pain?
Why does he hurt so much?
There’s more going on in the book than just Danny trying to find his daughter. There’s more to Danny’s story than just being an ex-con. You see, he was in prison for theft and fraud. Check kiting. That’s where you write one check from one bank and cash it to cover the funds you wrote another check for. It’s rather a big Ponzi scheme, actually. In Danny’s case, he stole the identities of some sailors and Marines, and set up several accounts to float checks between. So he stole money from the banks, and stole identities from people, trashing their credit ratings in the process. That’s why he went to prison.
But aside from the actual theft, why is it such a big deal for Danny?
It’s because, we learn later, Danny’s dad had an uncle who did time for burglary. Harrison Cumberland put a lot of weight in honesty, and Danny hadn’t just stolen money from the banks, he had defrauded people in the process. He had lied to steal his money, so his dad was doubly heartbroken. No parent wants to see their kid go to prison of course, but Danny hadn’t just robbed someone, he had lied about it, and that was a huge deal to his folks.
Then we learn that Danny’s parents died while he was in prison, and his mother died on the one-year anniversary of his imprisonment (I know, I’m a horribly cruel writer.). Danny remarks at one point that
By Easter, all I was getting was a list of their medical problems, which had grown substantially in the time since my arrest. Between Easter and the day that Dad died, I only got two other letters. The same day that I got the copies of things from Dad’s funeral was the day I got the call that Mom had died… In my mind, I had killed my parents. It was an indirect effect of my actions, but they had been healthy enough when I last saw them the Christmas before I was busted. Yeah, Dad had just turned seventy, and Mom was six years older, but they certainly should have had another ten years or so. Instead they were gone less than two years later, and in my mind, it could be traced back to me as easily as if I had been caught standing over them with a smoking gun.
Yeah, that could be traumatic.
Prison life isn’t fun. You’ve got to watch your back. You’ve got to be careful who you tick off, and careful about who you trust, if you can trust anyone. Trust is probably not the right word to use, either. It’s not so much a matter of trusting someone, as deciding which person is less likely to stab you in the shower line.
So that’s his story. He’s got guilt and trust issues. That makes sense. And this doesn’t even consider the trauma his daughter would have suffered during her kidnapping and trafficking ordeal.
But what about me?
I wondered about that for a long time after Rachel contacted me. My perception of Gravity was that you really needed to have a source for the trauma that you were writing about, and I didn’t have that, I thought. I’m just your average middle-aged guy, on my second marriage, with eight kids. I grew up as the fairly privileged white son of parents who were married till one of them died. What do I know about trauma?
Wait – second marriage? What’s that all about?
I was married once before. I had known her for about four years before we got married, although I was in Germany for a couple of those years. We had broken up while I was in Basic Training. I called her when I got out of the Army, “just to see how she was doing.” That was in April. I proposed in November, we were married in March, and the baby was born in June. I’ll let you work the math on that.
We were both immature, and neither one of us was ready to raise a son, so we separated less than two years after we were married. There were trust issues too. That was a little rough. I vaguely recall an alcohol-induced run on the freeway at ninety-plus one night, looking for a bridge abutment.
And while I wasn’t really bullied in school, I sure was a convenient target for a lot of jokes and whatnot. I probably brought some of it on myself, but kids can be cruel to each other at times.
When I was revising my bio for the promotional materials, Rachel remarked that she didn’t see a lot of emotion in the original version. I agreed with her that there wasn’t, probably due in large part to my introversion, or at least almost painful shyness. I like some attention, sure. But just the shallow kind. I don’t want to let you get close to me, or you’ll hurt me because you won’t like the real me.
I took the Gallup/Clifton StrengthsFinder test a few months ago, and my top three strengths are Context, Input, and Empathy. That means I enjoy thinking about the past. I try to understand the present by researching its history. I also archive all sorts of trivia. If I had better memory recall, I’d make a bundle on Jeopardy! The empathy means I’m big on emotions, and imagining what people in various situations are feeling.
So when you get right down to it, I write about emotions. I find them in my own experiences as a divorced father and family member of a sex abuse survivor, and from the people I meet. I put myself in someone else’s shoes, and tease out their feelings. Blending that with bits and pieces of history and life experience, I craft a story that might have been inspired by a song, or a news article. But it’s all about emotions in the end.
So that’s my story.