By Adam Vitcavage
Marti Leimbach has written an incredibly personal novel that dives deep into the psychology of a traumatic event that happened to her as a child. While Age of Consent is largely fictional, the writer used memories to extrapolate what it felt like to be in a certain situation and let her imagination control the rest of the plot. That idea of control is what excites her as a writer.
I chatted with the best-selling author via Skype from her home in England about creating fiction from personal truth.
Adam Vitcavage: I really enjoyed the book. Thank you so much for writing something so personal. Do you always finding yourself tapping into your personal life to find good fiction?
Marti Leimbach: I think the fact that I do it so often tells the story itself, I have to admit. So, I must like it. Occasionally I try very hard to get away from something that specifically I have experienced. Even in some abstract way. For example, when I wrote The Man from Saigon. I tried as hard as I could to move away from any experience I could have had directly. I wrote about a reporter in the 1960s in Vietnam. I loved writing that book. It really brought me away from myself. I got away from some of these other internal notions or demons or whatever you're wrestling with. I really enjoyed The Man from Saigon for that reason.
But often in a book, I’m looking to write about something I’m curious about inside of myself. Not a set of events, but a set of feelings, thoughts or responses. In writing a book I want to connect with something or find more about myself.
AV: When you were writing Age of Consent, was there something in particular you were trying to connect with or find?
ML: Everything in the book is invented in the sense that the characters and situations are invented. It’s all fiction. What isn’t fiction is the core of the book, which is really about what it’s like to be inside that subjectivity. There’s a teenage girl who should be learning about what it’s like as a potentially sexual being in a certain way, but she has to navigate this world of adult sex.
I didn’t want to talk about that particularly. I avoided talking about it even to people very close to me. I suppose I was still ashamed that ever happened to me; that I was ever in that situation; that I wasn’t able to prevent it from happening. I never wanted to write about it. Then, and it sounds so stupid, but I saw a photograph of a hotel sign. One of those big lighted, garish signs that says “MOTEL.” I saw this sign, and it was a particular evening and mood it portrayed and very clearly in my head I saw this motel, and then I saw the car park and the cars inside of it and the cream colored doors, and I saw a girl that might have been me—that wasn’t me—that might have been me inside of this room with a man she didn’t want to be with and the story erupted.
It wasn’t a novel. When I start writing I never know what it’s going to be. It could be flash fiction, short story, something for my blog. But this had a real power to it. That power came from a knowingness of what it was like. Not just that it happened because anybody could write that scene. Anybody could write about a girl in a motel with a man she didn’t want to be with having sex with her. That’s just plot and that’s easy. What isn’t easy and what intrigued me was the understanding of what it meant to be that girl. Not what happened, but the feelings and the responses internally about what happened.
When you’re looking at your own writing, you’re looking for value. You’re looking for that moment that tells you something more about yourself. It had value.
AV: You mention how this is largely an invented piece of fiction, but is it easier or harder for you to write fiction when it is based on something so personal?
ML: If I have to answer yes or no, I would have to say it’s easier. I remember writing Daniel Isn’t Talking, which is a book where if I had to research to write it, I might not have written it because the chances of getting it wrong would have been too great. If you want to portray a woman who is raising a child with something like autism, you better know everything about it because there are people out there who do and they’ll catch you on it.
It was easier writing Daniel, because by then my son was 6, 7, 8 years old. So I knew. And I wrote about the character as a baby; in fact, the baby in the book was a genius compared to my son even though my son ended up doing very, very well. The truth is that I wouldn’t have touched that topic if I didn’t have insider knowledge. I wouldn’t have dared.
I think the same is true with Age of Consent. Why would I assume I know enough to get deep inside the thoughts of a girl who is being sexually abused, then the women is grown and returns to confront the situation. Why would I pretend to be able to do any of that? Why would I want to? It’s a psychological book. It would have required so much research and I would be afraid that I would get it wrong.
There’s also so much in these books that is invented than real. You get to play with all of that invention at the same time without having to have that anxiety of worrying if you’re portraying a situation or a point of view right.
I don’t think I helped you with that answer, did I?
AV: No, you did. That makes sense. I talked to Kristopher Jansma, who wrote a book about a twentysomething getting cancer (and was recently interviewed by Writer’s Bone’s Gary Almeter), and he said the same thing. His sister unexpectedly got cancer and he said it was so important to get the truth about what it is really like out there for people to connect with it who have had similar situations.
But I think, as a 27-year-old man, I understood the point of view you were portraying and what she was feeling.
ML: That’s lovely for you to say. In these particular little cases that I write, all the big dramas take place inside of their minds and their hearts. There is a lot of plot, but this is where the real drama happens. That’s why I think writers are going to write about something that is a big issue to that people will connect with. I think it is easier with these types of stories that you have some experience with it.
Having said that, you don’t have to.
I remember deliberately with The Man from Saigon, that I needed to let the world know that I could write something that I had no way of knowing about personally. I felt it very liberating. It was a wonderful experience and I had a lot of fun writing it. I felt less anxious writing it. It was the same with Dying Young. I’ve never taken care of a man dying of cancer, but I have known loss early. I felt it was robbery that the character in Dying Young had to die so young, and I felt it was robbery that my father died young, and that my mother died young. I knew that sense of loss.
AV: Going back to this recent book being very psychological. Was there a point when you were writing it where it became too much and you felt like you’d never finish it?
ML: I always knew that I would carry on writing it. It was never a question that I wouldn’t finish it. But, and maybe this is a terrible reflection about me, but the worst scenes in the book that were excruciating to read were the ones I loved writing. I loved writing the hard parts. I like writing all of that. I think it’s because I get to take this really ugly moment that can happen to a person and I get to objectify it and shape it and control it. It’s not threatening because I’m in charge. It’s a feeling of control that doesn’t make me feel sad or anxious about these horrible situations.
AV: Was this part of a healing process? Or is a “healing process” as the media portrays it even a thing?
ML: I’m sure it’s a thing. I’m not sure if the media was saying anything about a healing process because I wasn’t paying attention either because I didn’t have access to the media or I was busy doing other things. Kids don’t look like they’re healing as they’re healing. Kids don’t look like they’re being abused while they’re being abused. Kids just do what kids do. They have their friends, they talk on the phone, they play with their toys. They just look like kids. So I don’t know when the process begins or when it ends.
I think shame is a very tenacious thing. What I remember through all of it was the tremendous shame I felt. While writing the book did absolutely nothing to increase my shame, publishing the book has been surprising. Even though this is fiction, there is a back story that I can’t deny and it would be disingenuous for me to deny.
So I tell people that I had something along the same lines happen to me with an older man, and I do feel shame about that. Even now. But I didn’t think I did. When I have to portray myself publicly as a victim or having to heal from something or whatever, I do feel shame. I’m not a victim; I’m what they call a survivor. But I don’t even like that. I just like being me.
I’d be dishonest if I said I didn’t feel shame. I don’t think books heal you. I don’t think writing books is cathartic. What’s been cathartic has been being successful in all of these small ways like having a great relationship with my husband, having friends, loving my children, being a good mother. These life processes that some would take for granted, I don’t take for granted.
Also be sure to listen to Adam Vitcavage’s new podcast Internal Review!