Writing as Wish Fulfillment
One of the great things about writing a novel is that you can endow your protagonist with qualities you wish you had.
Nola CÈspedes, the protagonist of my new thriller Hell or High Water, is a young, smart, sexy New Orleans reporter who investigates a serious crime story for the Times-Picayune three years after Hurricane Katrina. Her sleuthing leads her into scary situations with dangerous people, and the book has been praised by Booklist, which gave it a starred review for the “skillfully paced suspense” that makes it “a ‘stay up way past your bedtime’ read.”
But beyond the suspense and action, it was fun to give Nola some of the gifts I don’t have.
For one thing, she’s a terrific cook, and alas, I’m definitely not. For example, not long after we were married, my husband walked into the kitchen one evening to find me leaning against the counter, reading the New Yorker and eating cold ravioli straight out of the can. It was a revelatory moment.
I remember, too, one afternoon when our son invited one of his friends to stay for dinner, and the boy instantly replied, “Who’s cooking?” It’s a good thing to know one’s own limitations, but less lovely when the whole neighborhood knows them.
So it was fun to make Nola a natural genius in the kitchen. She whips up flan, cold jamon soup, and other delights from her mother’s Cuban recipes with the flick of a casual wrist. Since reading and seeing Like Water for Chocolate at an impressionable age, I’ve associated great cooking with earthy sensuality and seductiveness, so it’s a cruel blow to have no gifts in the kitchen. To compensate, I gave them to my character.
Even more fun, I gave Nola some of the flaws I’m not brave enough to indulge. Nola, for example, is gutsy (or reckless) enough to utter the kinds of bratty things I often think but do not say.
Shy and observant, a reader and watcher since childhood, I have an ongoing stream of social critique in my head, but I usually manage to restrain my out-loud commentary—in public, at least. At my workplace, I’m even known for diplomacy. (This shocks my husband.)
Nola, by contrast, mouths off about whatever crosses her path—usually without thinking first—and it’s fun both to let her rip and to render the trouble she gets into, whether she’s critiquing the racism at a plantation museum or talking back to her boss at the newspaper. She calls it like she sees it, and the consequences are a cautionary tale.
I had a lot of fun writing Nola, and I’m excited that she survived the scary plot of Hell or High Water to star in a second New Orleans thriller, Nearer Home, which will be released next year.