Chances are, if you’re reading this you like fiction. But if you’re a person who generally prefers “true” stories about “real” people and you’re reading this because some addle-pated fiction lover in your book group chose the book this month, then this is for you.
The seeds for the idea that eventually became She Was came from a “true” story. For me, it started on a summer morning in 2000. We’d hit the millennium after two decades of unparalleled collective narcissism. We were all: my happiness, my livelihood, my house, my car, my kids, my 401K. And now we were starting a fresh century, a fresh millennium, and we all assumed there would be more to come.
I was on the back porch reading in the Sunday Times about an ordinary wife and mother who’d just been arrested in St. Paul for planting a bomb (that never went off) in the tailpipe of a police car way back in 1974. I recognized her original name, Kathleen Soliah. I remembered seeing her picture on the TV news after she went underground. She wasn’t even with Weathermen or the SDS, (the “cooler” anti-establishment groups that came out of the Vietnam war protests and the Free Speech movement of the 60s) she was with the SLA, the sketchy group who kidnapped Patty Hearst. Still, reading it brought back the passion and color of the “youth movement” that inspired and created my generation.
A neighbor walked down the alley. I called to him. “Hey Ed, did you see they caught that old radical, Kathleen Soliah, in Minnesota?”
He stopped at the gate. “You got a minute?” He let himself in and sat down heavily.
“She’s married to my brother-in-law’s brother. Her name is Sara Jane Olson now.”
“You’re kidding. She’s married to Wah’s brother?” I knew Wah and his wife Vickie. I’d met most of the family over the years. It was a nice family.
And then I asked the question that comes to everyone’s mind at this point in the story. “Did you know who she was?”
He shook his head. “Nobody did.”
“Not even her husband?”
The idea of a woman remaking herself: marrying, having children, living the 90s life of SUVs and soccer practice after being a militant radical wanted by the FBI intrigued me. Here was somebody who had deeply buried dirt underneath a facade that looked a lot like mine.
But the more I thought about it, the Sara Jane Olson story seemed to be about paying the price for a mistake and that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know about the hiding, about building a life with no foundation. I wanted to know what made her do it in the first place. I wanted to know what it felt like to be the one who did it.
I wrote to Sara Jane Olson in prison and asked if I could correspond with her for my book. She wrote back that she would not talk about the year in her life when she committed the crime but she would be happy to talk to me about prison reform. Her response brought some things into sharp focus. Fair enough, I thought. I could think of a half dozen reasons why she couldn’t or shouldn’t share her story with me. But, more importantly, what had I been thinking? Did I think I was going to write a biography of Sara Jane Olson? No, I realized I didn’t want to do that even if she had cooperated. I was a fiction writer. I knew that what I really wanted to do was climb inside of a fictional character with a similar history and find my story from the inside. That’s what fiction writers do. For us imaginative truth contains possibilities that allow us to go deeper than we can go in actuality. As exciting as that idea was, I back burnered it in order to finish my first novel and get it published in 2004.
Meanwhile, the shiny pinnacle of the new millennium had been crumbling. Bush took office, America was attacked and the twin towers fell. We went to war in Iraq. In 2004 very few people were speaking out against the war or the administration. The media were still supportive. Many of us privately talked about how this war was starting to feel like Vietnam. Except there weren’t any flower children putting flowers into rifles, no draft card burnings, no massive protests.
In 2005, when I turned my attention back to the radical fugitive story. I saw it differently, with all the possibilities inherent in a novel. Setting it in 2005 with the Iraq war in the near background and the Vietnam war in the distant background provided a whole world of moral ambiguity, the main nutrient for fiction.
Now, I worried that by the time I wrote it and got it published the Iraq war would be a distant memory. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. As of this writing, we’re still in Iraq, and our economy has been ravaged because of it. It’s been a long time since we’ve had peace and prosperity in this country and we are all wounded. Even if Iraq ended tomorrow, a story set in 2005 about a woman who has hidden Vietnam in her heart, may be relevant to readers for a long time yet. That’s the beauty and mystery of fiction. When somebody finds She Was a hundred years from now, I hope they’ll be able to relate to two wars, to a woman hiding in her marriage from things in her past, to a dying man’s wish to heal the earth.
In six weeks we’ll elect a new president. By the time you read this I hope the Iraq war and its devastation will be on its way to being a bad memory.
Thank you for reading fiction. Thank you for supporting artists. In good times and bad, but especially in bad, we need frequent trips into the greater truth of imagination. Collectively, our dreams are embodied by our artists. So, keep supporting artists because a civilization without dreams has no hope and no future.
September 22, 2008