Lately, I fear that imagination has been getting a short shrift in the American novel. Everyone is so gung-ho on what they know and what is factual. Years ago, when I first got into crime fiction, I met the writer Donald Westlake, who is someone I really admired. He was being interviewed at a conference, and he said, “I became a novelist so I could make stuff up.” It really resonated with me. As much as I admire fact, and I do like to do some research, isn’t that the best part? Making stuff up? I believe in the power of imagination.
I take a really down-to-earth view of idea generation. I refuse to mystify it. I refuse to pretend that I go for long walks and I’m suddenly filled with epiphanies. I came up with [the idea for] “I’d Know You Anywhere,” because I was listening to a writer talk about creativity to a roomful of people that were very much like the person that I was. They had full-time jobs. They had families. They had complicated lives, and they wanted to write. I thought: She’s not giving these people what they need. She’s making it seem so ethereal and airy-fairy; she’s making it sound more difficult than it is. I thought: Well, I can’t get up and launch into a debate with her. I said: You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna sit here and come up with an idea for my next novel while she’s talking. I did it through old-fashioned brainstorming. I just started filling a page of: What am I interested in? What do I write about? At one point I put a balloon on the page that said, “I often draw on infamous crimes of my youth that are virtually unknown in the world at large,” which is easy with my youth, because there was not CNN. I was fascinated with crime when I was a kid, especially when it happened to other kids. There was a famous case in Baltimore about someone who was kidnapped by a serial killer and was the only victim not killed. For the first time I said, “Oh, my God, what’s it like to be that person?” And there’s the idea.
I think part of being a writer is figuring out what you might do a little bit better than other people. There is something about being an adolescent girl — the slings and arrows of being a teenage girl are so vivid for me to this day. I can literally remember every mean thing anyone ever said to me. I can remember every time I felt embarrassed or humiliated. It just doesn’t go away for me. I remember when I wrote my first stand-alone novel, I would joke to people, “It’s the most hard-boiled book that you’re ever going to read that begins with an anecdote about a Barbie doll.” It’s sort of where I ended up planting my flag.