In my previous post, I explained a bit about my writing process for a screenplay that I wrote before I started working on Cassandra’s Daughter. And the process involved a tight outline and index cards taped to my bedroom wall. That was definitely not the process with this book.
The spark for this book came not with a desire to write a book. It began as a self-imposed writing exercise. My mother passed away in 2013, so this exercise must have taken place quite a few years prior to that, probably in the early 2000s. At that time, I challenged myself to regularly write, whether I had a project I was working on or not. So I would go to the dentist for a root canal and then try to describe my experience using all my senses: the aesthetics of the office, the TV loudly playing as a failing means of distraction, the pushing and pulling on my teeth, the taste of chemicals, the horrific sounds of the drill and the saliva sucking tube, and finally, the smell (of burning flesh? Tooth? What IS that smell??). Or other times I would people-watch and single out someone to ascribe a personality to. And then I would do a character sketch of that person. One of those writing exercises ignited the spark for what became Cassandra’s Daughter.
One day, when I was 16, my mother told me that in the 1960s she had undergone electric shock therapy. That’s it. That’s all she said. And it was never brought up again until 35 years later. My mom, in a state of disorientation in her last months before she died, revealed that information to my sister, who figured she was making it up. I was able to confirm that I was told this years ago, but other than that, I knew nothing more.
Sadly, when my mom told me this, I was a teenage girl struggling with my own drama and insecurities and found no time for any curiosity or compassion regarding the startling news. I sure wish I could do that over again!
But at some point during my writing exercises, I thought about what she had revealed. What had happened to cause her to be given that treatment? What was the experience like? What did it feel like? Did it change her? I found a new assignment. I completely immersed myself into a scared woman, feeling alone and powerless, being forced to have electric shock therapy. And it was terrifying.
But here’s the thing. I think all of us are capable of doing this. Or are we? Am I just assuming everyone else thinks like me? I might be. But I love having an out-of-body experience and jumping into someone else’s body, and then living out one of their experiences in my head.
I remember doing this ad nauseam, and dysfunctionally, right after 9/11. I couldn’t stop putting myself on Flight 93, the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. I would lay in bed at night and put myself on the 107th floor of the north tower. What did that feel like? To know you were going to die? Would I have jumped? Burned to death? These thoughts haunted me and played out in living color. Am I the only one to do that??
Ugh. I must digress and discuss what seems to be an inability or unwillingness to this. I worry that one of the consequences of eliminating literature from English curriculums in both K-12 and in college is partly responsible for many people’s inability to imagine what it might be like to be someone else, or maybe more importantly, to imagine an experience they never had. The push of recent decades has been to only assign authors who match a student’s ethnicity, race, and sexual identity. And contemporary authors who are published at the big publishing houses can only write about characters who match their own ethnicity, race, and sexual identity. Plenty of books have been “cancelled” (removed from publication) for failing to do this. And we convince students that these are the only types of literature that matter to them.
I have a Monday afternoon yoga class I have been taking for a year now, so us diehards have become friends. When they found out that I had just published a novel, they all celebrated by buying the book right then and there, during our chat before we began the class. But one young man glanced at the book description before hitting “Add to Cart.”
“Ok. Be honest,” he said to me. “1914? Am I going to be able to relate to this book at all?”
He is in his early 20s, recently came out as gay, and was having his first real crush on another guy. (Yeah, yoga is a place filled with gossip!) Quite frankly, no one alive today can “relate” to being 16 years old in 1914. Much to his dismay, I am sure, I then threw on my professor hat.
“That depends,” I told him. “You are right. There is no character who is a young gay man in the 21st century in the book. But it is about secrets that are kept in families and the detrimental impact those secrets have on all family members. Can you relate to that?”
Need I tell you that of course he could relate to the corrosive impact of secrets? He hit “Buy Now.” But his reflexive response concerns me.
Don’t get me wrong. We all have preferences regarding the types of books we enjoy. For example, I am not a big fan of fantasy novels. I also don’t like historical fiction about actual historical figures, where the author makes up dialogue between, for example, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I don’t know. It just bothers me. I also understand why most men would not be interested in “chick lit.” My book is about women, mothers and daughters, so it would be understandable that it appeals to women more than men. But it isn’t “chick lit.” I don’t fault anyone for that. But what bothers me is the demand that characters and circumstances match those of the reader.
Sorry about that. Let me get back on track here.
As I was saying, I was trying to imagine what it would be like to have electric shock therapy. And it wasn’t good. I believe I was in tears before I finished the 25 pages I got through. Which also helped me see my mother in a different light, by the way.
Years later, as I was coming off the confidence that Captain and the Greyhounds provided me (see Part One to get the story on that!), I had an idea about writing a novel using that scene I wrote about electric shock therapy. I thought the book could be about family secrets through the generations. Boy, was that vague though! Where the heck to start??
Right around this time, a friend tagged me on a Facebook post that was advertising a free three-day writers’ workshop with best-selling author William Whitecloud. Free? Price was right, so I went. Turned out, he had a pretty large following in both Australia and London. He had recently come to the United States and was interested in building a writing community in Los Angeles.
I am so grateful to have taken the leap and attended that workshop and to have been part of that initial community.
Those people were the first to hear my thoughts about this book, and they were the first to help me solidify my ideas. I will forever be grateful for them and for the work we did together. Part of that included a writers’ workshop in 2017 in Mozambique! (Thanks to any of you reading this!!)
Of course, after that trip, I had to go home and actually write…a novel! So it was time to make some big changes in my life. A month after I returned from Africa, I found myself driving cross country to drop off my daughter at University of Michigan for her senior year of college and my son at Indiana University for his freshman year. After dropping them off, I continued on my way to the Outer Banks, a place I had picked out, sight unseen, to devote myself to writing this novel.
That was an emotional trip because for the first two nights, I had booked a motel in Hatteras. I got there pretty late at night, but when I woke up the next morning to explore, I broke down in tears. There was nothing here. Not a grocery store (well, a tiny KOA-style market) or a coffee shop for me to shop or to write. I had put all my eggs in the Outer Banks basket, and now I was learning that there was no way I could live there. Luckily, the next three nights were reserved in Nags Head. And Nags Head was filled with shops and restaurants and coffee shops and beaches. And people! Yes, this was a place I could live.
I spent those days searching for a place to live and was thrilled to find one in Southern Shores right on the beach. It would fit my needs and my dreams perfectly. I signed a lease for a house on the beach and prepared to move in for six months of writing!
I had my ideal writing retreat. Now I would need to actually write. More about that next post!
Cassandra’s Daughter by Vickie Oddino
Available on Amazon