When Life Imitates Art

Emily Littlejohn, author of the Gemma Monroe Mysteries series (including the forthcoming Lost Lake, available now!) , looks at the ways in which her protagonist echoes her life.

What would you do if your life started mirroring that of your character? If you’re a horror author, you might freak out. Romance novelists, on the other hand, might find it exciting and sexy. But I’m a mystery writer, which leads me to believe that the most appealing mysteries are those grounded in reality.

Let me back up.

When I wrote my debut novel, Inherit the Bones, I was newly single, working full-time at an urban library, and writing was a hobby. It was something I did in the evenings, on the weekends, whenever the mood struck. I was undisciplined and free from the unique expectations and pressures that come from being a published author with a contract in hand.

Those weren’t the good old days, but they were the easy days.

I had fun writing Inherit the Bones; my main character Gemma Monroe was a female detective, six months pregnant, unwilling to let anything stand in the way of closing cases and nabbing the bad guys. She spent as much time eating as she did searching for clues. The father of her child, Brody, was off site for much of the book; Gemma truly did stand on her own two feet. She was, and continues to be, a strong female role model in a career dominated by males.

Little did I know that by the time Inherit the Bones would be published, I’d be married, six months pregnant, with a new employer, and nearly finished with the second book in the series, A Season to Lie. As I toured local bookstores and presented author talks, inevitably someone in the audience would hone in on my growing belly and ask if I’d planned things that way.

Alas, the publishing industry is much too scheduled for that and it truly was by coincidence that I found myself in the very strange position of life imitating art.

Of course, there are some differences between heroine and author.

Gemma’s a cop; I’m a recovering librarian who’s moved into another field of employment altogether. Gemma’s in a rocky relationship with the father of her child; I’m happily married. Gemma throws herself into dangerous situations in pursuit of justice; I throw my hands over my eyes at trailers for scary movies.

As an author, I do feel a responsibility to be true to Gemma’s essence; the bottom line is that she’s a working mom just trying to make a difference in her community.

And yet, for all those major differences, we have one very important thing in common: we’re mothers. Becoming a parent has fundamentally changed the landscape of my soul. I see the world differently now; there’s both more fear, and more joy. My worries are no longer for myself, they are for my daughter. My time is more precious, more stretched.

Gemma also finds herself caught in these moments of quiet desperation, realizing for the first time in her life just how quickly the hands on the clock tick past. In a heartbeat, her infant is nearly a toddler. Another blink and the toddler has become a child. I too know that in a matter of what will feel like minutes, my daughter will be a grown woman.

And I’ll be happy, but a part of me will wonder where my little girl went.

Another commonality my character and I share is the fact that we both work full-time.

Gemma and her partner Brody balance jobs, childcare, and the overwhelming responsibility of raising an infant much as my husband and I do: we seek help. In the novels, Gemma employs a wonderful nanny. We have our daughter in a small in-home daycare where is she loved and able to spend time with children her own age in a stimulating environment.

Making the decision to work full-time instead of staying home with my child was a personal choice; for me, it came down to two factors: I enjoy the challenges and rewards that come with having a career, and my husband and I want to provide the best future we can for our daughter while also taking care of our own retirement needs. Gemma chooses to work because she too enjoys her career but perhaps even more importantly, she is deeply empathetic to the victims she encounters, and deeply wants to see justice served. Her career is a true calling.

It’s been a privilege to watch Gemma grow as a character over the course of the series. As an author, I do feel a responsibility to be true to Gemma’s essence; the bottom line is that she’s a working mom just trying to make a difference in her community.

At the end of the day, the differences between us keep things interesting. While I’ll probably never chase down a criminal or interrogate a suspect, I sure have fun stepping in Gemma’s shoes every now and then and channeling my inner detective. This November, you can catch her in her latest adventure in Lost Lake, when she discovers that some secrets are better left in the icy waters of Lost Lake.

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