The Seductiveness of Writing Fiction

Writer transitions from nonfiction to fiction. How did she do it?

Posted Aug 26, 2013

So many people believe they have a story to tell. They want to write a memoir or novel. I know I have had an idea floating around in my head for a couple decades. Susan K. Perry, a social psychologist, Psychology Today blogger and author, has made the leap from nonfiction to fiction. Her first novel, Kylie’s Heel (Humanist Press), was just released. How did she do it? I asked her to explain.

Q: After writing six acclaimed nonfiction books, including the bestseller Writing in Flow, what prompted the switch to fiction?

It was, in fact, the research that went into Writing in Flow that convinced me to try my hand at a novel.  I interviewed dozens of novelists and poets, and most of them seemed to be having more fun using their imagination than I was having with nonfiction.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the transition?

The lack of a deadline was challenging. Writing without knowing the end was new to me, and a little unnerving—plus the huge amount of revising necessary.  Of course, some of those aspects of writing fiction also provide its lure.

Q: Being a parent myself, Kylie’s Heel pulled me in instantly. It pulls both gently and harshly on a parent’s every wish, concern, and fear for her child.

I never meant to make readers sad, but being a parent has that side. Dread came to be a larger part of the story than I thought it would.

Q: Frequently first fiction is semi-autobiographical.  Your plot pivots on an only child: is he in any way like any of your own children? Are there aspects of your life in the main character, Kylie?

I wish I had much more imagination than I do, so I could answer that question with a simple No, I made it all up. But of course, many of the characters, locales, and scenes were initially inspired by my own two sons, my own fears, my own relationships, and the experiences of everyone I ever met. Reality, though, is only a stepping-off point.

Q: In the book Kylie writes a column called “A Rational Woman.” Can you explain why you chose that title for the column and the purpose it served in structuring the narrative?  Don't you have a blog for The Brights by that name also?

I've always been annoyed by the fact that women are generally seen (in history, and throughout the media) as being less rational than men. I hate stereotyping, and I very much value my own efforts to be a rational woman, even when enduring hard times.  So having my protagonist, Kylie, write a column called "A Rational Woman" seemed like a good way to integrate some gentle philosophy (and personal opinion!) into the novel without bogging down the narrative. I got the real life blog AFTER the book was accepted for publication. At the end of Kylie’s Heel, readers are invited to write to me with real questions.  I think that's called synergy.

Q: Your ability to make the reader feel as if s/he is living the text him/herself is impressive, at times haunting. What elements in the book do you think made this possible? Do you think it was pitting Kylie against her twin sister, the religious elements, or a maternal fear that we all experience in some form? 

What a delightful reader response! Thank you. I think you'll have to give some credit to the vast amount of fine literary and women's fiction that I read during the past decade while I was revising and revising. I tried to take what worked for me as a reader and put it into my own work. I learned not to be afraid of emotion, even though rational Kylie uses her Emotion Away spray to keep from being overwhelmed. I don't have any siblings myself, so I based the sisterly scenes on how I feel toward family members and friends who believe differently from me. 

Q: How did you research the aspects of Africa that are key to the plot?

Lots of reading, online and off, and some cadging (with permission) from my older son's letters to me when he was in the Peace Corps.

Q: You open Part 2 with the quote: The worst is not…So long as we can say, “This is the worst” from Shakespeare’s King Lear. What are we meant to understand from this quote?

Hang on, rough ride ahead?

Q: In the end, your novel is about redemption and renewal and the difficulty in repositioning/reinventing yourself to make life-determining decisions.  Non-fiction writers hope their readers will learn from their books. Is there something specific you want your readers to take away from Kylie’s Heel?

I hope readers will understand that, even without the comfort of religion, we can learn to live fully, no matter what happens. Although our attachments are capable of causing us the most pain, if we don't keep opening ourselves to them, we have nothing.

An excerpt and a Reader's Guide (for book groups, etc.) for Kylie's Heel are available here.