My Novel/My Selves: Using Subpersonalities to Create Fictional Characters

By Jessica Levine

Where do fictional characters come from? Often they originate in people that writers have known, perhaps loved, or even hated. A mother in a novel resembles the one in the author’s life; a boyfriend has character traits suspiciously like those of the author’s husband; and so forth. A first novel, especially, can be what the French call a roman à clef, literally a novel with a key, in which the author’s life is rendered under a thin veil of fiction. In such cases, acquaintances and biographers invariably have fun pointing to the real-life sources of the cast of characters. But novels are also like dreams in which different parts, or subpersonalities, of the writer’s self enter into dialogue and concerted action to further healthy integration.

What is a “subpersonality”? The term has many different uses in psychology. For this essay, I mean a part of the personality of a healthy individual that has a specific identity rooted in a phase or role of that person’s life. Take Dr. Kimball, for instance. She may wear many hats: a general practitioner in her medical office; a wife at home; a mother to her children; a would-be Olympic swimmer at the gym (in her own imagination). When stressed, she may revert to earlier selves: perhaps there is inside her an abused child; a stressed high school student; a binge-drinking college kid. All healthy individuals have “multiple personalities,” not as in a clinical disorder, but in the sense of having lived through different experiences and roles that have left their particular imprints, coping strategies, wounds, and lessons.

In my former practice as a hypnotherapist, I often led clients into a trance state in which they could conduct a dialogue between their subpersonalities. (This is sometimes called “conference room” work, because the client visualizes different parts of the self negotiating around a table.) In depth work, darker parts of the personality invariably emerge: the wounded child, inner critic, addict. For instance, a businessman with a procrastination habit might experience a dialogue between the achieving self and the self-saboteur; in such a case, an internalized, destructive father figure might also appear. The goal is to heal and resolve inner conflict in order to achieve a more integrated personality.

After many years of practicing hypnotherapy and writing fiction in tandem, I began to feel that the novelist is often doing subpersonality work on herself, consciously or unconsciously, when she stages characters that have sources in her own life and experience. This became most clear to me when I was studying Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In this novel, a triangular love story takes place between a young New Yorker, Newland Archer, who is divided in his affections between the virginal, cloistered May Welland and the Europeanized, sexually more experienced Countess Ellen Olenska.

The three characters in Wharton’s novel represent different aspects of herself that correspond to different periods of her life. May Welland represents the young Wharton who, born and bred in 1860s and 1870s New York, was brought up according to the repressive Victorian rules of the day. She is the virginal, sheltered “Young Girl” that was the ideal of the period. Newland Archer represents Wharton’s longing to escape American provinciality for Europe and a broader experience of life and culture. Thus, Archer’s situation caught between May and Ellen is a figure for Wharton’s own negotiation between America and Europe, and what they represented to her, as she tried to decide where to live. Finally, Ellen portrays the modern woman Wharton became after she divorced and left the stifling milieu of her youth in order to settle in France, where she acquired more freedom socially, culturally, and sexually.

Because my interest lies in psychological fiction, I found myself taking the same approach in creating my characters. I am writing a series of three novels, each one of which focuses on a different cousin in a female triad. While the structure of my fictional family bears some resemblance to my own, the cousins are actually drawn from different aspects of myself. My first novel, The Geometry of Love (She Writes Press, 2014), is the story of Julia Field, a New Yorker, accountant, and poet, secular in outlook, someone who wants to follow the rules in both love and work, but finds herself breaking them. This character corresponds to my youth in New York, where I attended a traditional, very authoritarian private school. I was at the time highly invested in being a successful student, as teachers’ praise for my academic accomplishments compensated for the vicissitudes of having an alcoholic mother at home.

In my second novel, Nothing Forgotten (She Writes Press, April 2018), the protagonist Anna is a New Yorker who has moved to California. She is married and on a spiritual path marked by her Jewish roots and Buddhist thought, when a lover she knew in Italy in her youth returns and upsets her equilibrium. Here I was consciously staging a dialogue between, on the one hand, the wild, adventurous part of myself that came into being during the year and a half I lived in Rome in my early twenties and, on the other hand, the more settled person I’ve become, engaged in parenting and in a spiritual quest drawing on different meditation traditions. Anna’s quest is to achieve integration of those two personality parts into one human being who can satisfy both her need for adventure and her craving for internal peacefulness.

The third novel I am projecting, tentatively titled Shambles and Light, will focus on the third cousin, who appears briefly in the first two works. Robin is a hypnotherapist who uses shamanic practices and lives an experimental lifestyle in San Francisco. Here I am bringing in my experience as a therapist, my interest in using altered states of consciousness for spiritual development, and the insights into relationships that I’ve been privileged to acquire through listening to clients’ stories.

The reward of tapping into the multiplicity of one’s own experiences and emotions, the dark as well as the light, as they are embodied in one’s evolving personhood, is that one ends up creating characters that are believable and vivid by virtue of their origins in reality. In the process, the author undergoes an integration of self parts that can be healing and energizing beyond the book itself.

Author Photo: Chris Loomis 

JESSICA LEVINE is the author of Nothing Forgotten (She Writes Press, 2018), which earned a starred Booklist review and which Foreword Reviews called “women’s fiction at its best” and The Geometry of Love (She Writes Press, 2014), chosen as a Top 10 Women’s Fiction Title for 2015 by Booklist, which called it an “outstanding first novel” in their starred review. Her literary history, Delicate Pursuit: Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton, was published in Routledge’s Outstanding Dissertation Series. Her essays, shorts stories, and poetry have appeared in many publications, including The Southern Review and The Huffington Post. She has also translated several books from French and Italian into English. Jessica holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a Mellon Fellow. She was born in New York City and now lives in the Bay Area. Learn more at


Why I Write About Iraqis: Novelist Helen Benedict on the obligations of fiction


I am neither Muslim nor a war veteran, Middle-Eastern nor a foreign correspondent, so when people find out that I have written two novels (Wolf Season, Sand Queen) featuring an Iraqi woman and her family, their first question is often, “Why?”

This question arises because it is still so unusual for American novelists to write about Iraqis that people genuinely don’t understand my interest.

Of the increasing number of novels and story collections, and even movies, coming out of the latest Iraq War, only a smattering feature Iraqis as full human beings. Most do the same thing Vietnam war fiction did for so long – tell the war story entirely from the point of view of American soldiers, while the population of the country they occupy fades into background. When Iraqis do appear, it is usually as either a clownish interpreter or a villain.

This trope is even worse when it comes to women. For years, no Iraqi women have appeared in American fiction, except as wailing widows or black-clad figures in the distance. The only American fiction I know of, other than mine, that features an Iraqi woman as a full character is Matt Gallagher’s novel, Youngblood.

Why do we keep writing about the war and leaving out Iraqi women? After all, the UN tells us that more women and children die in today’s wars than men. Yet war remains, as it has for millennia, an almost entirely male story.

When it comes to the U.S. war with Afghanistan, we writers have done somewhat better. Flashes of War by Katey Shultz, The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Battacharya, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are all powerful works of fiction featuring Afghan women as fully realized characters. I might point out that all these authors are civilians, one is a woman, and two were not born in the U.S.

I was first drawn to writing about Iraq when we invaded in March of 2003 and began raining bombs down on the citizens of Baghdad. Very soon after “Shock and Awe,” as our initial attack was so gloatingly called, a blog called Baghdad Burning began appearing on the internet, written by an anonymous young woman who called herself Riverbend, a computer technician with English so perfect she sounded like an American college student.

I read that blog religiously. Riverbend’s thoughts and feelings were just as “like us” as my own daughter’s, yet she was describing day-by-day what it was like to live under the U.S. invasion – what it was like to live through the overwhelming, heart-freezing injustice of war.

I then began reading other Iraqi blogs, along with every translation I could find of Iraqi poetry and fiction, most of which was written by and about men before our invasion. I also turned to YouTube and found videos and documentaries made by Iraqis. The most remarkable was one made by an anonymous woman who put on a burqa, hid her handheld camera under it, and drove around the Iraqi countryside interviewing women about what they were suffering. What she was doing was so dangerous, she explained into the camera, that the video would only remain up on YouTube for a day or so. Sure enough, it disappeared. I only hope she didn’t disappear, too.

After that, I sought out Iraqis around New York, former interpreters for the U.S. military, journalists, or government, and their families, all of whom had been granted the special visas reserved for those who have served us for two years and passed over a year’s worth of security checks.

I met Nour, who had been imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib at the age of 16 for writing a poem Saddam Hussein didn’t like. Having learned English out of love for language and literature, she later become a translator for an American journalist. She and the journalist were kidnapped in Baghdad and shot in the back. The journalist was killed, but Nour survived and came to the U.S. with the help of his widow.

I met Hala, who had fled Baghdad with her husband and children after her brother and 15-year-old son were killed in the war. She and her children spent hours with me, helping me with the kinds of details I needed to create my Iraqi characters. When her son, who was nine at the time, heard my English accent, he insisted I had written the Harry Potter books.

I met Mohanad, who had grown to love the American soldiers he had worked with as an interpreter in his country. He had taken the job because he hated the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and wanted his people to have a true democracy. He was now living in Albany, learning a trade and hoping to make a life free of war and death.

I met Yasir, who, as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, had saved many lives, risked his own many times, and had become close friends with his American sergeant. Now he was in Boston, studying. He and his wife gave me a bountiful and delicious Iraqi lunch.

With the help of all these generous people, and out of Riverbend and my reading, my characters Naema Jassim, her husband Khalil, and their son, Tariq, were born.

Now, as Wolf Season comes out, the Trump administration’s latest attempt to ban Muslims from our shores is about to go into effect on October 18, and we are once again in a political climate invested in dehumanizing and villainizing refugees. So, I fully expect to once more hear the question, “Why do you write about Iraqis?”

Here is my answer.

I write about Iraqis because we have hurt them so badly and taken no responsibility for it. Because we owe them. Because it is the mission of artists and novelists to fight stereotyping that reduces people to nothing but targets. Because Iraqis are human beings who deserve all the rights and dignity and sympathy and understanding that we ourselves think we deserve.

I write about Iraqis because all of us need to stop being afraid of the victims of our wars and brutality, and embrace them instead.

Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and the author of seven novels, including the just-published Wolf Season, and her previous novel, Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel.” She writes frequently about justice, women, soldiers, and war. Her coverage of sexual assault in the U.S. military inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War, and her work instigated a landmark lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of victims of military sexual assault. Benedict has spoken at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard University, TED Talks, and the United Nations, among others.

A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, including the book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq, and a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. She lives in New York.

Turning her mother’s life into fiction: Anne Raeff talks with Barbara Ridley about her new Holocaust novel, WHEN IT’S OVER


I recently had the pleasure of reading this moving novel inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II. The protagonist is Lena Kulkova, a young Jewish woman who comes of age in Prague during the 1930s. There she is a member of a group of leftists and falls in love with a charismatic activist, Otto, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Before the war breaks out, she follows him to Paris and eventually joins him in England, where they spend the war years and where most of the book takes place. Although they are relatively safe in England, Lena is in a perpetual state of anxiety about the fate of her mother and sister who stayed behind in Czechoslovakia.

Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and dog. Find her online at

Anne Raeff is a novelist and short story writer. Her book of stories, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including New England Review, ZYZZYVA, Antioch Review, and Guernica. Her novels are Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia (2001) and Winter Kept Us Warm, which will be published by Counterpoint Press in February 2018.

Raeff: My first question is about how you came to write this book. Is it a book that you have always wanted to write, have always been writing, or was there something that pushed you to take up your pen now after all these years?

Ridley: It didn’t occur to me to write this novel until the death of my mother in 2002. A friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 40 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up in England, and when I started to tell her, she said: that is an amazing story! And I realized, yes it is. I had done very little creative writing before—just occasional poems or stories over the years—but I had published several academic articles, so I knew how to string words together on the page. So I thought: okay, maybe I could do this. But I didn’t start writing until three years later.

Raeff: I am wondering why and how you made the decision to tell your mother’s story as fiction. Did you consider writing it as memoir or biography or did you conceive of it as a novel from the start?

Ridley: I pretty much realized right from the start that I would write it as fiction. I had always known the outline of what had happened to my mother and her family during World War II, but there were a lot of gaps.  And the people who might have been able to fill in the gaps were either dead or memory-impaired. (I tried.) So, I thought, well, I love fiction, I’ll make up what I don’t know.

Raeff: What was the most unexpected detail or information that you came across while you were doing research for this book and how did this affect the shape that the book took?

Ridley: First: I came upon a book on my parents’ bookshelves—this was after they had both gone, but before we had cleared out the house and their hundreds of books. It was a small 1940’s style Penguin paperback called The Internment of Aliens. I was astonished to learn that thousands of Germans, both Nazi sympathizers and Jews or Communists who had fled for their lives, were interned in England in 1940, as “enemy aliens.” It was very controversial, and this book, written at the time, was a polemical critique of the policy. I knew nothing about all this, and I found it fascinating. It became an important element in Lena and Otto’s story.

Then later, I was given the opportunity to read the letters my father wrote during the war. Initially, I hoped they would contain more information about the early stages of my parents’ relationship. But in spite of the fact that they were written to one of his closest friends, they were almost entirely devoid of any personal information, and didn’t mention my mother at all!  Instead, they offered long, detailed, and fascinating insights into the political climate during the last two years of the war, leading up to the defeat of Churchill and the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.  I always knew Labour won this election, but how was it that Churchill, the great wartime leader, lost so badly? And how would it have affected my protagonist: the euphoria of this victory against the backdrop of the revelations about the fate of those sent to concentration camps? This was very interesting to me, and I incorporated it into the last section of the novel.

Raeff: Since the book is so rooted in your mother’s story, can you talk a little bit about how you learned her story? Did you grow up hearing the stories that would later become the core of this book, or were you the one who initiated discussions about her past?

Ridley: I grew up knowing the general outline of how she was a refugee during the war, and she told a few stories about the group living together in the tiny cottage in the village. But she didn’t talk about it often or in detail, and certainly she never dwelt on the emotional impact of her family’s past. When I was in my thirties, after I had already moved to California, I interviewed her, recording an oral history on a 90-minute cassette tape.  This was 20 years before she died, and the first and only time she told me a lot of the story that forms the core of the novel. She gave me a glimpse there of her hopes and her anguish about the fate of her family members left behind, but we rarely talked about it more after that.  Years later, I had that tape transcribed, and I referred to it a lot while writing. Unfortunately, the tape ran out just as she was talking about the man who formed the basis of the character of Otto in the novel—and I can’t remember if she told me more about him, but if she did I didn’t record it.

Raeff: Since the book is based on a true story, I am curious to what extent you used the facts and actual details of your mother’s life. I am especially interested in knowing whether the main characters surrounding her existed and whether their roles in her life and in politics are the same?

Ridley: Broadly speaking, yes. My mother was involved in the Socialist Youth movement in Prague in the 1930’s. The man whom I call Otto in the novel did exist, but I know very little about him or their relationship, so most of that is fictionalized. But it’s true that he was a spy for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, she did follow him to Paris, and he was instrumental in finally getting her an entry permit for England—after many failed attempts. The characters Muriel and Milton in the novel are based on my grandmother and father, and their politics are pretty accurately portrayed. My grandmother came from a very privileged background but developed an unorthodox lifestyle and liberal views.

Raeff: In the book both Lena and the British man she ended up marrying were activists, socialists. Did your parents continue to be active in politics in England until late in life? Did their politics change? How did their activism affect the way you view the world and the choices you made?

Ridley: My father continued to be active in politics, and in the 1950’s ran twice (unsuccessfully) for Parliament as a Labour Party candidate. I grew up a “red diaper baby,” as it used to be called in the U.S.  At the age of two, I declared that “there are two kinds of parties: the Labour Party and birthday parties,” and soon I was taken to “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations.  Later, my father became disillusioned with Labour for moving too much to the center. I was constantly exposed to his running commentary on current affairs, which was very different from the narrative I heard at school or in the media.  So I learned to be skeptical and form my own opinions.

My mother became a 1950’s stay-at-home housewife, and was not directly involved in politics, but they both maintained a left-wing outlook throughout their lives, and my mother was an early supporter of the Green Party.  But they lived in a staunchly conservative upper-middle class area, where they were very different politically from their neighbors, and they took a conservative newspaper. In England, as you may know, the daily newspapers are all national, not regional, but distinguished from each other by their political bent.  So usually, if you see what kind of newspaper someone reads, you pretty much know all you need to know about their social class and political affiliation. But my parents read the Daily Telegraph, the most conservative of the quality papers. They preferred its news coverage, they said.  I found that odd.  I was eager to escape the conservative small-town environment in which I was raised, and head for the big city, and I have chosen to live most of my adult life in the politically-liberal San Francisco “bubble.”

Raeff: Because I am also the child of immigrants and refugees from World War II, I was particularly interested in Lena’s loyalty and feeling of connection to England, her adopted country. As the child of an immigrant, growing up English, what were your struggles?

Ridley: My mother was loyal and grateful to Britain, but as an immigrant, she also had an outsider’s perspective, and she often mocked English mannerisms and certainly English cooking, the way the vegetables were boiled into oblivion, for example. (This was back in the 50’s and 60’s; it’s vastly improved now.) So, I always felt different, and somewhat of an outsider myself. I had a mother with a foreign accent (which was uncommon), and then there were all the political differences I just mentioned, plus we didn’t go to church, which was a big deal. My parents were not religious, which was unusual back then, and in school—the equivalent of what we would call a public school in the U.S.— we had to begin every day with Christian prayers.  So I always felt odd, and that I didn’t completely belong. And then, in an interesting parallel, I ended up as an immigrant myself, moving to another continent, to find a place where I felt more at home.

Raeff: I am always interested in how a writer’s profession or work influences his/her writing. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how your years as a nurse practitioner shaped you as a person and a writer?

Ridley: That’s such an interesting question. I loved my work as a nurse and then a nurse practitioner and I spent most of my career in rehabilitation nursing, working with people with neurological disabilities, helping them adjust to life after devastating injury or disease.  As a person, this has made me always appreciative of my own good fortune and health. As a nurse, I felt privileged to witness the huge range of response to trauma and adversity.  I had to accept wherever my patients were coming from, and acknowledge their perspective, not impose my idea of what they should be feeling.  I was always inspired by their resilience.  Perhaps this informs the way in which I write about my characters facing trauma and my ability to get inside their heads, interpreting scenes from different points of view.

Raeff: Do you have any advice for other writers who are working on books that are so closely drawn from real historical events?

Ridley: I worked very hard to make sure that all the historical details were correct, and that I was not introducing any objects or language that would not have existed at the time. I think this is very important. You don’t want the reader to be thrown out of the story and not trust the authenticity of the world you are creating.  But working as I was from family history, I learned that you have to be able to view the narrative as a separate entity, with a life of its own. My protagonist is based on my mother, but Lena is not my mother. She became a character that I created. During the process of writing the novel, and workshopping chapters, I would sometimes receive feedback that this action or event was not “believable.” And I had to resist the urge to say, “But it really happened.” It is not enough that something really happened; it has to be believable within the arc of the story.

Raeff: What are you working on now or, if you haven’t started something new yet, what are you thinking of working on next?

Ridley: I am working on another novel—completely different, set in contemporary California, and very much based on my years of clinical experience. It’s about a young woman having to reinvent herself after a spinal cord injury.

Behind the Book: Siobhan Fallon’s THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES

The Guard

By Siobhan Fallon

August 27th, 2017 — 6:02 a.m.

In early 2011, my family and I lived near the U.S. embassy compound in Amman, Jordan—so near, in fact, that our apartment was inside the outer guard ring. I was very happy about this situation. Two weeks after my three-year-old daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy indefinitely to help with a NATO mission. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring was taking root and there were protests outside of the Syrian embassy, protests outside of the American embassy, protests in the rural areas outside of Amman over the high costs of cooking oil and bread, and protesters in Amman demanding political reforms. Then Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan, which was seen by many as another U.S. invasion of a country’s sovereign territory. Prime-time news was filled with burning American flags.

So you can imagine how much I loved seeing the U.S. embassy guards standing at the gates.

Everyone stationed at the embassy had to attend a Regional Security Brief within a few days of arrival. We were told to change up our driving routines in order to make it hard for us to be followed, to look under our vehicles for explosive devices, to not drive beyond Amman city limits after sunset, and to always let a fellow American know when we went on a trip.

We had also been warned about our Western ways, with a special emphasis on how American women needed to be sensitive to this culture quite different from our own. It was recommended that our clothing cover us from wrist to ankle. That we be aware conservative Muslim men would feel uncomfortable shaking the hands of women not related to them. How it was verboten to sit in the front seat of a taxi, the front seat being reserved for the wife of the taxi driver, and our presence there could be misconstrued as a sexual advance. How we should try to not touch the hand of a male cashier at a grocery store when he was handing over change, lest he view this as suggestive.

But the embassy guards — well, we did not need to worry about them; they had been thoroughly vetted, many had worked with Western companies in the past, some had even lived in America. Their English was better than the average Jordanian, and they were accustomed to our strange cultural differences, like American women wearing shorts and tank tops to the embassy gym (otherwise, we were advised to never wear shorts and tank tops in Jordan).

There was the guard who showed me video of his son’s gymnastics competitions. The guard who handed candy to my daughter, his pockets crammed with single-wrapped mints. The guard who meowed because he’d seen us feed stray cats. I brought them cookies, bottles of water, chocolate bars. I would have my daughter present the treats, and the guards would direct their thanks at her, press their hands to their hearts, say “Alhamdillah,” or Praise God,” pinch her cheek or ruffle her blonde hair.

The guard who worked the gate closest to my house spoke very little English, and while I spoke very little Arabic, we exchanged pleasantries almost every day. He was in his forties, clean-shaven, wore glasses, and would throw open his arms when he saw us. Most Jordanians said, “You are welcome!” This guard would shout, “A million, million welcomes!” Then one of us would inevitably say something the other would not understand, we’d pantomime merrily for a few incoherent minutes, and I’d wave good-bye.

About a month after my husband left, my daughter and I came to this particular gate and found him on duty with another guard, a young man with beautiful green eyes whose English was better than most. The older guard reached into his back pocket as I drew close, produced a carefully folded piece of paper, and handed it to me. I hesitated, knowing this was out of the ordinary.

I opened the letter and began to read, the words in capital letters, the writing painstakingly exact:

You are beautiful. Your smile is the sun—

I looked up, startled, feeling a blush warm my neck. The guard was watching me, nodding. I glanced down to read more just as the younger guard tore the paper out of my hand. He began to yell at the older man in rapid, angry Arabic, pointing at the high embassy wall behind us, then stabbing his finger in the direction of my apartment. I froze, trying to keep a smile on my face and ignore whatever was going on.

The young man crumpled the paper in his fist. He stared with those green eyes into mine.

“He does not understand,” he said. There was something combative about his face, his words. I nodded, chastened, as if I did understand. I took my daughter’s hand and walked toward the embassy. Later, I exited the embassy by another gate, sneaking around to my apartment building without having to pass those guards.

He does not understand.

What could those words possibly mean? And how could I ever find out? He didn’t understand I was married? He didn’t understand it was odd for a near-stranger to tell a woman she was beautiful?

Or he didn’t understand that I smiled and chatted with everyone, that it wasn’t a declaration of affection on my part?


They relocated those guards.

I’d occasionally see the older guard at one of the farther gates. He always welcomed me but he did not put his arms out in the joyful way he had before; he did not say “A million, million welcomes!”

And he never wrote me a letter again.

How I wish I had held on to it, read it in its entirety, studied the intentions and misspellings. It could have been nothing more than a show of friendship, Jordanians often being more effusive than Westerners. I had strangers tell me I was like a daughter to them. Once, I spent a few hours with a woman and she yelled as I drove away, “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

He does not understand.

So I started writing a short story about Jordan as a way to figure it out.

That story became a 300-page book, The Confusion of Languages, and it could have been much longer. All those endless opportunities for miscommunication.

I lived in Jordan for a year. While I never wore a tank top or sat in the front seat of a taxi, I’m still not sure exactly what I understand—not just about the Middle East, but about men and women. About people. About the ways we get one another wrong every day, about the moments that seem small but for some reason linger.

About all the fragile messages we want so desperately to share with another human being, only to find the distance is just too far, and it’s too easy to lose the words before we ever get the chance to read them.


For more of Siobhan Fallon’s essays and fiction, photos of Jordan, or to order her new novel, The Confusion of Languages, please see her website:

Actor-turned-writer Gina Sorell: How “Method Writing” led to my first novel


Long before I called myself a writer, I was an actor. Even though writing had been my first love, it wasn’t how I made my living. I’d attended performing arts schools from the time I was 9 years old all the way through high school, and I went to college at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Although I’d devoted so much of my life to being an actor, the part that I enjoyed the most were the stories that my characters got to tell. I loved building my characters, writing elaborate histories that explained how they came to be the people they were at the moment the audience met them. A script can only tell you so much about the character, presenting them as they are in the here and now. Maybe there will be clues, or lines about their past, but it’s often up to the actor to decide the rest.

A character breakdown on a casting notice might say, “A divorced, polished, hard as nails lawyer, who clawed her way to the top without anyone’s help, she knows her way around a man’s world.” And I’d wonder: What made her so hard? How did she claw? Intellectually, sexually, ethically, mercilessly? What did that sacrifice cost her? Is she polished in her appearance? Did her Armani pantsuit put her over the top on her credit card, maxing her out after paying student loans and the debt from her deadbeat ex-husband who gambled away all their savings and slept with her best friend?

I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal.

The script may give insight into her past, but it might not, especially if the role is small, and it would be up to me to imagine the rest. I’d write pages about who my character was and what had gone before the audience met her, a back story so detailed that I knew what music she liked, what her favorite drink was, what her politics were, and what her secrets were, even if I never got to share this information with the audience. These details made the characters real, made them complex and fascinating, and I often wondered what adventures they’d have beyond the time I got to spend with them.

Now, as a writer, I still do all of this work, and much of it never makes it to the page. I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal. But it’s through this exploration and examination of the people in my work that I can come to really understand who they are and what motivates them.

But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together.

In that way, my acting work was no different than my writing work. I strive to make the pages and the people who inhabit them come alive, finding their way into our hearts and minds long after we meet them. But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together, and if I’ve really done my work, they will not only reveal themselves to me, but will lead the way I write the story or novel as well.

When I started writing my debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers, I was still working as an actor, but slowly transitioning out of it. On set I had found myself increasingly talking more about the script and the story than about my own particular role in the projects I was cast in, and it was clear to me that I wanted to spend more time creating my stories than acting out someone else’s.

As I began to write, I spent a lot of time thinking and walking and getting inside my characters’ heads, trying to see the world through their eyes. I’d improvise dialogue that they’d say and conversations they’d engage in, and wonder about the people that really lived beneath the exterior they presented. I came to know  intimately the cast of characters that I created, reserving judgment in order to allow them to be flawed and complicated and often broken.

And because of this I think I was able to stay true to them, even in the face of outside concern or criticism. There were times when early readers told me that Elsie, my troubled 39-year-old protagonist, who had endured an unhappy childhood at the hands of her cruel and narcissistic mother, was too depressed, too bitter, her dark humor too biting. Why would anyone want to spend time with her, when she seemed so unlikable?

I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked.

But in my heart I disagreed. I saw her as a survivor, trying to find her way in spite of the scars her childhood had left, her humor a coping mechanism, her struggle with depression understandable and real. I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked. I trusted that by knowing who she really was, I could take the reader inside her head, so that they could understand her, and in doing so, come to love her as I did. I strive to do this for all my characters, so that even the malevolent ones, responsible for the psychological wounds that Elsie carried, would be worthy of some empathy. And I believe that they are.

As an actor, my job was to bring my characters to life off the page, and now as a writer, my challenge is to bring them to life on the page. The medium may have changed, but the goal — creating lives that give us insight into the hearts and minds and world of others — has remained the same.


Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Gina Sorell now resides in Toronto, and lives in a world of words. Some of those words are: writer, namer, creative director, artist, daughter, sister, wife and mother.

After two decades as a working actor of stage and screen in NYC, LA, and Toronto, Gina decided to return to her first love–writing, and graduated with distinction from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Gina likes to balance out the long solitary hours of novel writing with her work as Creative Director of Eat My Words, a SF-based branding firm, where she collaborates with innovators and entrepreneurs whose identity she establishes with only one word, their name. 

Emilia Bassano Lanyer: Was she the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets?



By Charlene Ball


Who was Emilia Bassano Lanyer, and why does she matter?

Emilia Lanyer lived during the time of Queen Elizabeth I and two other monarchs. She published a book of poetry in 1611 called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in which the title poem makes a strong argument for women’s equality. The book also contains the first country-house poem in English, and it is prefaced by dedications to nine prominent women, thus making Emilia the first woman in England to seek patronage and identify herself publicly as a writer. And on top of all this, she may have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I was thrilled when I learned about Emilia. I was in graduate school, and I heard historian A.L. Rowse give a talk about his theory that she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. He “discovered” her when he was researching the casebooks and journals of the astrologer Simon Forman, and he decided that she must have been the woman Shakespeare describes. Copies of her book had been languishing for four centuries in several British and American libraries, but Rowse’s 1979 edition of her poems and his claim about her relationship with Shakespeare brought her into the public eye.

However, Rowse’s view of Emilia was basically misogynistic, even though he allows that she was the best woman poet of her age. He called her “a bad lot,” “no better than she should be,” and assumed that she was promiscuous, based on no evidence other than that she had been the mistress of one man, possibly the lover of another, married to a third, and obsessed about by a fourth. Most scholars followed Rowse’s view until the 1990s, when feminist historians and literary scholars began writing about her.

The facts we know about Emilia are these. She was the daughter of Baptista Bassano and Margaret Johnson. Baptista was the youngest of the Bassano family of musicians and instrument makers who were invited by King Henry VIII to come from Venice to be Court musicians in England. The Bassanos may have been secret Jews, converts who outwardly conformed to the Church of England but practiced their religion in secret.

We know from one of the dedications in her book that Emilia was educated in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. From the astrologer-physician Forman’s casebooks, we learn that she was mistress for several years to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen. She married her cousin Alfonso Lanyer, a royal musician. She was mother to two children, Henry and Odillya. Henry lived to adulthood, became a Court musician, married, and had children. Odillya died in infancy. From Forman, we also know that Emilia visited him in 1598 and again in the early 1600’s for an astrology reading. Forman developed an erotic fascination with her and she seems to have had some sort of relationship with him that stopped short of sexual involvement.

Other things we know from Emilia’s book: she spent time at a country house called Cookham Dean with Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, and the Countess’s daughter, Lady Anne Clifford. Emilia probably served as a waiting gentlewoman or a music tutor. Her poem about the place called “The Description of Cooke-ham” describes her time spent there as idyllic. This poem happens to be the first country-house poem published in English. A country-house poem is a sort of bread-and-butter letter in verse, thanking one’s host for an enjoyable visit and praising their home. Until recently, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson has received credit for the first such poem, although Emilia’s predates his by five years.

Emilia published her volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in 1611, becoming one of the first women to publish a book in England. It contains the title poem (which means “Hail, God, King of the Jews”), “The Description of Cooke-ham,” and dedications to nine noblewomen, plus two more dedications: “To the Vertuous Reader” and “To All vertuous Ladies in generall.” She adds an afterword, “To the doubtfull Reader,” explaining how the title came to her in a dream. As far as we know, Salve Deus is her only book.

What makes Emilia unique as a writer is that, in dedicating her book to nine prominent women, she was seeking patronage the way a male writer would. Patrons would pay an author for a dedication if they liked the work (10 pounds was the going rate). It was rather like applying for a grant from a foundation today. Seeking patronage shows that she saw herself as a professional writer.

Being a professional writer didn’t mean what it does today, by the way; it was not necessarily a path to fame and fortune. Emilia asks the astrologer whether she will become a lady, not whether she will publish a book. Nobility circulated their writings in manuscript, not bothering to publish. Commoners who wrote sought patronage, often with an eye to employment. Shakespeare put considerable effort into acquiring a coat of arms and in buying up land and houses, and not so much into publishing his works. He seems to have wanted to become a gentleman of property, not a poor player and scribbler of public entertainments.

My novel, Dark Lady (She Writes Press, 2017), depicts Emilia and Shakespeare as having an affair. However, no proof exists that Emilia knew Shakespeare. But what if she did? But what if a bold, proto-feminist author also had a love affair with the most famous poet of all?

I wanted to write about Emilia from a perspective sympathetic to her as a woman of her time. So my novel shows her not only as mistress and lover to two important men—one the most famous writer in the world—but also as a thinker and writer concerned with serious issues who published a book when few women did so.

I portray her as a woman, a mother, concerned with economic survival, struggling against misogynistic attitudes and laws that restrict women’s lives. I show how the great events of the time affect her—the Armada, the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Gunpowder Plot. I show how her relationship with the poet from Stratford inspired her to write. And I show how her friendships with other women are central to her life, helping and sustaining her, giving her acceptance and the courage to write her truths.


Charlene Ball holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, author and bookseller Libby Ware. Visit her online at her website or Facebook.

Photo credit: Libby Ware 

Janet Benton: How keeping a diary changed my life, as a daughter and a writer


There are a lifetime’s worth of influences underlying any novel, including my own debut, Lilli de Jong. But one fundamental influence was this: My mother kept a diary. And thus began my understanding of the power of writing to oneself.

I grew up in an old Connecticut town, a semi-rural place with a few remaining farmsteads and a growing population of commuters to job hubs in Connecticut and New York. Our house bordered a swamp, and I met my best friend there most afternoons to explore plants and snails, worms, and a modest creek—a wending, narrow, rock-filled place that we found fascinating.

I loved my mother dearly. In my early years, I loved watching her in action: seated before an easel, silently spreading oil paint across a canvas; standing in the kitchen, cooking from recipes she followed with care; engaging in animated conversation with friends. I watched her freckled, pretty face when she was yelling, crying, laughing, reading. When she read, her face was open and soft.

When I wasn’t watching, she kept a diary.

People may have viewed a housewife’s diary-keeping then as a cute past-time—a way of elevating the purported trivia of her life or, at best, a way of finding company. But diaries are powerful. They offer a place where muffled voices can tell their truths. Diaries are tools for digging up what we know and for laying claim to what we find.

My parents divorced when I was nine. Even before my father moved out, mothering and keeping house were no longer central to my mother’s life. She’d already blasted free of the confinement of being a housewife in suburbia, married to an often silent man. Yet I didn’t want this to be true. I wanted to think that, at least in private, she considered me central. And somehow I figured out that she was keeping a diary. She kept the book in her bedroom; perhaps I came in once when she was writing.

After the divorce, she sometimes stayed out till late at night, doing exciting and important things I didn’t understand. More than once I went into her bedroom, pulled open the door of her night-table cabinet, took out the cloth-covered three-ring binder she wrote in, and scanned its pages. My mother’s scrawl was nearly incomprehensible to me, as she’d been a left-handed person in a school system that made her hold a pen in a bizarre manner to conform. But I managed to find out some of what she thought and felt about her art, her lovers, her nighttime dreams.

These matters were not what I was hungering to find. I was searching for my own name. Now and then I found it in a note about me doing some out-of-the-ordinary activity. “Janet left for camp today.” “Went tonight to Janet’s play.” I don’t remember finding more than a few sentences.

I stopped looking. Because when I read her diaries, there was no denying that she was the central character of her life. This was not what I wanted to believe. Inevitably, such a realization occurs in every relatively healthy mother-child relationship; it is important to understand—for those who were lucky enough to have had the opportunity, to some extent, not to understand—that one’s mother doesn’t exist as the sun to one’s earth. She is her own planet. In some circumstances, at some ages—or perhaps in some secret part of ourselves, always—it hurts to know this.

Still, I must have appreciated the candid way my mother wrote of what concerned her. I must have seen that a diary was a place for truth-telling. Because I decided that a diary was a place I needed to have. At ten, I created my first one, folding blank paper in half, stapling it in the middle, gluing fabric to its front and back. My parents were divorced by then, and divorce was uncommon in our little town. My dad was just about to marry the second love of his life, which shocked me; I didn’t like to know that our family was truly never going to cohere again. I needed a private friend. I wrote my first entry on the evening of that wedding.

My relationship to the page wasn’t immediately confessional. Like someone in the early stages of a courtship, I was coy. Within a year or two, however, I needed the pages of my diaries more than anything. I needed somewhere to be real.

Diaries are subversive by nature; they contain points of view that can’t be expressed publicly. If we want them to, they can hold anything we feel. As such, they are a particularly meaningful tool for anyone who’s not ideally situated in life.

Until I was a mother, I kept a diary for myself, gradually filling two old trunks with notebook after notebook. I carted these trunks from one coast to another, from apartment to apartment to house. They sit in my home office now, growing more fragile by the year. They say, “Open us! Claim us!” But I’m afraid. Do I dare to feel again what I felt back then? One day, I’ve often thought. I’ll see what I can make from all that.

When I became pregnant, I stopped filling notebooks with stories from the life of me. I began writing to my baby-in-progress. After my daughter’s birth, I continued writing to her future self in notebooks. But my own truths about adjusting to my roles as mother and wife became awkward, difficult. They seemed traitorous. I did write them in my own diary, a little, but time was scarce, and I wanted to write the novel that was coming to me. For the next dozen years, I wrote that novel instead.

I’ve long loved well-wrought novels that convince me the narrator is writing to a diary. Their immediacy creates tension, and by nature they allow readers close access to the diarist’s mind—an intimacy that satisfies. The diary novels I’ve counted as favorites include Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and two by Geraldine Brooks: Caleb’s Crossing and Year of Wonders.

So it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that the first novel I’ve finished of the four I’ve begun—the first one I was willing to put eight or nine thousand hours into—is a diary. Lilli de Jong keeps it during a transformative four months of her life: from the last weeks of her pregnancy through her first months of learning to be a mother.

Women have long kept diaries. The published American women’s diaries I’ve seen from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are telegraphic in nature, describing visitors, work accomplished, the weather, and financial transactions; they rarely contain feelings. In some cases, more intimate sections may have been deleted by grandchildren or other editors who compiled the published versions. But no doubt many diarists didn’t feel that such things should be entrusted to a page.

An artist, though, may be more likely to know that such honesty is transformative. Beginning with her diary, poems, and paintings, my mother, Suzanne Benton, became powerful. She turned 81 last January on the stage of the Women’s March in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a huge crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She was introducing the city’s mayor, Rick Kriseman, because it was she who had conceived of that city’s march, had drawn people together to make it happen, had worked long days and nights to co-create the largest march ever assembled in St. Petersburg, with an estimated twenty-five thousand people.

“We know what we have to do,” she called out. “We know the path ahead is ours. Did the Berlin Wall fall because the government thought it was a good idea?” (The crowd shouted, “No!”) “Did the civil rights movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (“No!” again.) “Did the second-wave women’s movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (A large and rumbling “No.”) “We were a lot smaller than you, and look at what we did . . . Rights are not given—they’re won. So be brave, have courage, look out for your friends, for your neighbors, for each other . . . We’re going to stand together. We’re going to email, we’re going to call, we’re going to sit in on those legislators who have no moral compass, who go with the wind. Well, we’re a hurricane. Watch out, and hear us roar!”

Amid applause, Mayor Kriseman took the microphone and read a proclamation naming that day, January 21st, as Women’s Rights Day in St. Petersburg.

This large life my mother has claimed was not what others expected of her. She, too, had to win her rights. But that’s another story.

I saw my mother’s genius and her courage up close. By example, she taught me that making art is a process of healing, of inventing oneself, of telling one’s stories. She taught me that we create ourselves continually, and that being true to yourself can connect you with others in meaningful ways. As for those who are uncomfortable with this, one should stay too well occupied to notice. My mother showed me that making art offers a way to face and transform whatever life offers. She taught me that making art is a form of perpetually rescuing oneself.

Rescuing herself is precisely what Lilli de Jong does by keeping a diary in 1883 Philadelphia. She matters in those pages, and this helps her believe that her concerns should matter in the world. Her notebook-writing helps her stay honest with herself—and strengthens her voice. Keeping a diary sustains the dear and courageous unwed mother I invented, a young Quaker named Lilli de Jong.

I hope her story will move its readers, bringing them close to her mind and heart, as diary novels can do this like no others.

bio: Janet Benton is a writers’ mentor through her business, The Word Studio. Her debut novel, Lilli de Jong (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), is the diary of an unwed Quaker mother in 1883 Philadelphia who decides to keep her baby amid fierce prejudice. Visit to learn more.