A couple years after I began working at Books & Books, novelist Karen Shepard stopped by to sign stock of Don’t I Know You? for the stores.
The ARC of Don’t I Know You? had caught my eye because of the letter she’d included. In the letter, Shepard explained that she’d written the novel because of her fascination with a childhood classmate whose mother had been murdered.
Like many explorations of childhood, writing the novel became partially about the discrepancy between how she remembered the incident and what had actually happened, but it was also an exploration of why this classmate haunted her.
He kept cropping up in her fiction. This letter called to me because whenever I wrote anything with characters younger than eighteen, sooner or later a childhood friend I’ll call Alex would appear.
I grew up in East Syracuse, Alex grew up in Minoa. We went to school together from fourth to twelfth grade, and sat together at the Brain table in junior high and high school. Alex had four or five brothers, I’m not sure which. He lived forty minutes to an hour’s ride from my suburb, in farm country. When we were in fifth grade, his oldest brother deliberately killed himself, in front of Alex, with a gun.
I remember it as a shotgun to the head but I’m not sure. I remember his older brother was in high school, but I’m not sure about that, either. I know Alex saw a psychiatrist the rest of his school career. I know none of us ever mentioned the suicide, not once in eight years.
There were times it seemed like he wanted to talk about it, like when he’d bring up the psychiatrist, but none of us followed up on anything he said. We’d laugh at things Alex told us about the psychiatrist because he was joking and we wanted him to be happy, not because it was funny. I don’t know whether we should have been better listeners, or if we should have been more curious. I know I write about him to answer all of those questions I never asked as kid.
Don’t I Know You? turned out to be excellent. Since Mitchell was out of town, he asked if I’d meet her and play host while she signed.
Shepard was lovely, intelligent, and forthright. She brought some relatives who embarrassed Shepard with tales of her success. Shepard told me that when you’ve written a novel, the way to arm yourself from criticism and worry about how the book will perform is to be involved in your next novel. She looked up from the stack of hardcovers she was signing, head cocked to the side.
“You know, this is the first time I’ve written something without being involved in the next project. I’ll let you know how it turns out.”
Empire of Women was published in 2001, Bad Boy’s Wife in 2004, and Don’t I Know You? in 2006. If we have to wait much longer, I guess we can assume it didn’t go well. In the meantime, Don’t I Know You? remains a strong backlist seller for Books & Books. I’ve enjoyed recommending it to book clubs and helping new readers discover it, and no one has come back to me disappointed.
I told Shepard about Alex, of course. I told her I’d cast Alex as a main character in the book I was writing, and I hoped I’d never see him again once it was finished. She was most curious as to how time had played with the memory, but I told her proximity to Alex had probably stopped my imagination from running wild.
I asked her if writing Don’t I Know You? had worked for her, if her childhood friend had stopped haunting her fiction.
“I’ll let you know how that turns out, too,” she said.