From a Q & A with Adrienne McDonnell about her new novel, The Doctor and the Diva:
The Doctor and the Diva is based on actual events in your family. Did the connection to actual relatives make the story easier or more difficult to write? Which characters came easier for you, the ones based on actual people or the ones who were purely fictional?Read the complete Q & A.
The ancestors who gave rise to my characters lived a century ago. By the time I married into my first husband's family, they'd taken on a kind of legendary air. "Erika" and "Peter" had lived in such bold and colorful ways that people in the family—especially the older women—liked to talk and speculate about them.
In my early twenties, as I walked past Erika's childhood home in Boston's Back Bay on my way to work, I'd pause and stare up at the windows and wonder about her. Before I ever had a child, I felt kinship to her in a primal way, knowing that my descendants would be her descendants. The family connection was deeply inspirational, and having hundreds of pages of family letters was a blessing and a gift.
But despite all the research I'd done, no record existed about certain key moments in Erika's life. For example, there's the scene in which Erika tells her little boy that she'll be leaving him behind and moving to Italy to develop her singing career. From his childhood letters, it's obvious that he was left with the impression that she'd eventually return. The letters show that as the months went by, he felt forlorn and frustrated by his father's evasive answers about when "Mama" would be coming back. But the private conversation between the departing mother and her little boy? That was something I had to "overhear" in my imagination.
I never felt a big difference between the "real" versus the "invented" characters, or felt that creating one was more difficult or easier than the other, because even the "actual" characters also had to be imagined to an extent. Writing this novel was a process of reaching beyond what was known, into the realm of what could have occurred.
Let me also say that there's something liberating in writing a novel about people who lived a century ago. By the time I began the novel, they'd long been dead. So that allowed me to write with a certain abandon and emotional honesty. I didn't have to worry about the possibility of offending them, or their own children and even grandchildren.
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