When I was in fourth grade in Mobile, Alabama, my teacher took one look at my half-crossed Ts and declared to the whole class, “Michelle doesn’t finish what she starts.”
Well, that is not a terribly nice thing to say to a fourth-grader. But three decades later, I proved her right. I was more than 300 pages into a novel I was writing on contract with my publisher when I finally admitted to myself that the novel just wasn’t working. I began writing it when my son was just a few months old—he’d be in his bouncy seat beside my desk, and I’d rock him gently with my foot while typing. Months later, when we hired a babysitter to come to the house so I could get a little work done, I began going to the beach to write in my car. Something about the disjointedness of this process inevitably made its way into the book, until I finally realized I’d written myself into a mess I couldn’t get out of. When I told my editor I just couldn’t finish that novel—the characters weren’t moving me, the plot wasn’t gelling—my editor said, “Why don’t you try writing something else?”
Surprisingly, the idea of starting all over again came as a relief. Within a couple of weeks I was trucking on the new book, which would become NO ONE YOU KNOW. I found that, once I’d freed myself from the story I thought I had to write, the story I wanted to write came bursting through. Perhaps this is why NO ONE YOU KNOW is, in many ways, a book about storytelling. Twenty years prior to the book’s opening, Ellie’s sister Lila, a young math prodigy, was murdered, the crime never solved. Andrew Thorpe, Ellie’s English professor at the time, wrote a true crime book about Lila’s death. The book devastated Ellie’s family and destroyed her friendship with Thorpe. Now, two decades after the fact, Ellie encounters the man who was named as the killer in Thorpe’s book, and realizes how deeply flawed Thorpe’s version of events had been.
“Looking back, it was easy to see that the major story of my own life had been my sister’s death. Andrew Thorpe’s book had deeply influenced the way I constructed this story. I was twenty years old when I read Murder by the Bay, young enough to believe that the things he said about Lila’s murder, and the things he said about me, were true. There were times when I wondered if, in describing me in relentless detail, in using me to create a character to fit the story he wanted to tell, Thorpe had somehow altered the course of my life…”
So yes, NO ONE YOU KNOW is a book about the stories we tell ourselves, and those others tell about us. It is also a book about sisters, about how a loss of a loved one can reverberate through the years. My passion for coffee is woven into the mix (Ellie is a coffee buyer who travels the world for work), and, because Lila was working on a famous, centuries-old mathematical conjecture at the time of her death, there is a bit of that in there too. I really enjoyed writing this book. And if I found my fourth-grade teacher, I’d tell her that there’s something to be said for not finishing what you started. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a story is let it go.
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Michelle Richmond is the author of the New York Times best seller The Year of Fog, which was named by Library Journal as one of the best books of 2007 and was a Kirkus Reviews Top Pick for Reading Groups. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, The Believer, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband and son in San Francisco. Her website is www.michellerichmond.com.