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2022-06-16 13:22:35 By : Ms. Erica Xia

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A few years ago, the internet lit up with a story about a bride nicknamed “Canadian Susan,” who demanded her guests fork over $1,500 each to help bankroll her wedding to her childhood sweetheart. The details were exquisite: A psychic had convinced her to choose the more expensive venue. Her role models were the Kardashians. When her GoFundMe raised just $250, she canceled the wedding, dumped her fiancé, and threatened to leave her young son for two months to go backpacking in South America.

Did the pandemic change me? Or have I always been obsessed with “news” about family fights? I’ve read more about messy weddings—from proposal to nuptials to dismemberment—than any human should. I’d like to think it’s because as a novelist, I seek out the far reaches of human behavior, the wildest possibilities for interpersonal drama. That’s what novels can do, push characters to the extreme so that readers can feel the consequences of risky decisions without ruining their lives. I’m naturally shy and conflict-averse, but rubbernecking at others’ train wrecks, I learn how to live in this world.

A few weeks after Canadian Susan’s story made the rounds, my editors at St. Martin’s Press emailed to ask if I’d be interested in writing a novel about Facebook groups devoted to “wedding shaming.” Susan’s rant might not have gone viral had it not been posted in one of these private groups, where wedding guests convened to complain. From there it was leaked to Twitter, where Chrissy Teigen shared it, at which point every news outlet in the Western world joined the fray.

I’d been a journalist for almost 20 years, so getting an assignment was not new to me. But being assigned a novel?

I took a few days to think about this. I’d been a journalist for almost 20 years, so getting an assignment was not new to me. But being assigned a novel? I hadn’t realized that was a thing. I’d thought a novel was supposed to be a pure expression of the heart, a singular and sacrosanct opus. Or could I find inspiration within a topic offered to me, the way I do with magazine features?

I have not written about my life, either in fiction or nonfiction. I still harbor the belief that I am not special, my story not interesting enough for fiction. That my voice does not matter. As a child and teen, I had to believe that, because if I had tried to cultivate personhood, it would have been extinguished.

My father was a successful man who imposed his way of living on me and my brothers. Work was noble, self-expression was self-indulgent, and feelings were weakness. I had to protect my sensitivity to keep it alive.

Writing, therefore, became an attic where I could stow my real, vulnerable self, as my body blundered blind through the world. But my stories were disguised, even from me. They have always been about other people.

Instead of writing about my experiences coming out of the closet at 22, for example, my gay characters dated and married women until their forties or fifties. Another came out and, after a terrible heartbreak, went back in.

My undernourished self extended to all my relationships. I censored myself to be palatable, didn’t challenge others or put my needs first. I ended up attracting more than my share of emotional vampires who saw what they wanted in my silence and used me to prop up their egos.

My first published novel, Carnegie Hill, was inspired by a friend who served on the board of his Upper East Side co-op. I was intrigued by the idea of an apartment building as a container for a novel and by the structure of a co-op, that unique living situation in which everyone has financial and emotional stakes in everyone else’s home. 

I had unwittingly recapitulated my childhood, with an understudy playing the role of the father.

Then my friend received a terminal diagnosis, and he became demanding and embittered. I recognized the profound horror of his situation, but we couldn’t talk about it, or anything, without fighting. I had cleaved to him because of his sensitivity and insight, but now he used his intellectual heft to flatten me. Beneath the weight of his need, I could no longer exist. I had unwittingly recapitulated my childhood, with an understudy playing the role of the father.

When his personality changed, so did the novel. I imagined characters whose privilege hindered their ability to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

Though the idea had come from my friend, every emotional challenge the characters faced was something I too had been wrestling with—most notably, how to get one’s needs met in relationships. The finished book was a map of my psyche that only I could decode. I was present in the story, just hidden.

The most common question I’m asked at readings is what in my life inspired the book. Which character is me? That’s like handing me a smoothie and asking me to point out the strawberries.

But I don’t think inspiration must come from within, which is to say that the well-worn rule of thumb “write what you know” is just one way to go about it. “Write what you don’t know” can make for some fascinating literature. Toni Morrison told her students not to write what they knew because they didn’t know anything. Kazuo Ishiguro, Meg Wolitzer, Richard Ford, Philip Pullman, and many others don’t believe that well-worn advice, either.

“Write what you don’t know” is also conveniently easy for someone afraid to put himself on the page.

In a fiction-writing workshop I teach at NYU, we examine and write from three kinds of inspiration. The syllabus begins with personal stories, work that reads like autobiography, even though it’s not. Then we move to works that draw from other works of literature, because books gather a literary patina rubbed off by contact with the canon. The third and final section of the course spotlights inspiration from the news—for example, Emma Donoghue’s Room and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys.

In my case, I was trying to understand Canadian Susan and other brides who behaved badly.

Countless novels have been inspired by tragedies, and the novelist’s work is to infuse these terrible and incredible events with humanity. In my case, I was trying to understand Canadian Susan and other brides who behaved badly. The hero of the story, I realized, had to be a bridesmaid who put up with them.

Of course, I have never been a bridesmaid. The few times I’ve been a groomsman, my worst pain point was getting fitted for a tuxedo.

But I research obsessively. Rarely do I write a sentence without confirming details or definitions—and, as I’ve mentioned, I devour all the tawdry wedding stories that grace my feed. I spoke with dozens of former bridesmaids and read every bridal guide I could find.

I quickly realized that I had been shielded from a LOT. 

Jilted wives, drunk uncles, and seagreen chiffon — it’s wedding season!

I knew that signing up for bridesmaid duties often meant buying and wearing a satin dress that can never be worn again. And that it might require a couple dozen hours of crafting. I didn’t know that women have to give an extra gift at the bridal shower. Or that bridesmaids usually pay for their own hair and makeup, mani/pedi, jewelry, shoes, and special undergarments. Or that they often plan multiple gatherings, a parade of celebrations for the bride. And that more parties are being invented all the time: the bridesmaid proposal, for example. All to satisfy the evolving American fantasy of the perfect wedding.

In the novel that resulted, The Bridesmaids Union, Iris Hagarty creates a secret support group for bridesmaids on Facebook and dishes about her spoiled sister’s bridal antics to her new online friends. I filled the book with wedding horror stories, both from online “news” and those many interviews with friends and family. 

One bride asked some of her bridesmaids to sit during the ceremony, to balance out the sides. Another asked a friend to be a backup bridesmaid in case someone dropped out. Multiple brides requested weight loss from their entourage; one had a meltdown because a bridesmaid got the wrong haircut. I heard the baffling “no kids” rule again and again. Bridesmaids were conscripted to provide professional services like graphic design and hairstyling for free. A tyrannical groom insulted his fiancée and the wedding vendors on his wedding day. A bride never forgave her bridesmaid for skipping the wedding because her father had a heart attack.

Canadian Susan and her $1,500 admission fee didn’t make the cut: Everyone had read that story already.

My work was to understand the plight of others, not project myself onto the page in a variety of disguises.

I thought this new novel would be a different enterprise from Carnegie Hill, one in which I assembled others’ stories as a journalist would, like a puzzle. My work was to understand the plight of others, not project myself onto the page in a variety of disguises.

But here’s the surprise—though in retrospect, it’s not surprising at all—the book is fully me, no matter how much material I found from other sources. My feelings osmosed into the characters, via a literary possession I suppose I can’t help practicing. Every conflict is shot through with my own struggle to inhabit my life. Iris vents on the internet because she doesn’t think her friends want to hear her true feelings. She fails to stand up to her parents, who believe they know what’s right for her and her son. She can’t set boundaries with brides and boyfriends and ends up feeling drained and flattened by connection. Through the novel, she learns how to claim her power and speak her mind. In other words, how to exist.

Day by day, I’m learning that too.

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Jonathan Vatner is the author of The Bridesmaids Union (St. Martin's Press, 2022) and Carnegie Hill (Thomas Dunne Books, 2019). His fiction has earned praise from People , Town & Country , The New York Post , and the Los Angeles Review of Books . He is the managing editor of Hue , the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology and teaches fiction writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.

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