“A Writer’s Way to Profit from Memories” (article)
by Virginia Andrews
Since my first novel was published (Flowers in the Attic), not long afterward
many letters came to fill my mailbox; clearly indicating that most of my readers
think I am writing about my own life. Only some ways is this true. Cathy
Dollanganger is not me, persona, but me only in her way of responding to the
traumatic events in her life. Her emotions are my emotions her dilemmas are
somewhat similar to mine, but not in anyway precisely.
It’s difficult to say where a writer leaves off and the character takes over.
One could hope to be as verbal as Cathy, and say all the right things at the right
time, but in real life that seldom happens. Dialogue can move the action along
speedily. When you construct a good strong character, often he or she will take off
and lead the way, often surprising the author. Shout hooray when your characters do
this for you.
I do know that my mind is full of childhood and young adult memories and
how I reacted to different situations. Somewhere along the line, in my most difficult
years, those troublesome adolescent ones, I decided that I would never forget the
differences between adult rationalizations and the literal way a child looks at the
world and life. I suppose at the time I was thinking of my own children and how I
hoped to be (someday) a very understanding mother.
Metaphors are wasted on children. A rose is a rose and nothing more. When
we are young adults we tend to forget this. Many adolescents write to me not
understanding why I named my first book what I did. And so when I look back and
try to understand why I write as I do, and why so many of my fans are convinced
only an autobiography can be written as emotionally and powerfully, I realize I do
pour a great deal of myself into my stories. I suffer when my characters suffer. I
lose weight when they do. (Take notice, all of you writers who are overweight—
starve your characters.)
In formulating situations and characters, I take bits and pieces from my life,
from the lives of my friends, lives from the tales told to me by older family
members, and I weave them into my novels. I use my dreams too. It seems my
dreams are the most powerful imaginative force I have going for me, but for
memories. Yet, somewhere in my chest near my heart, lives a force I draw upon for
ideas too. The more I trust it, the more willing it is to give. It seems I have a
warehouse of memories, my own, and those belonging to others to draw upon. If
you don’t have that kind of retentive memory, keep a journal.
There is the magic of memories… they do not have to be inhibited by the
strict truth. A writer can, and a writer must, embroider and embellish what might be
a simple tale without all the imaginative trappings. To take one’s own life story and
tell it exactly as it happened (unless you’ve led one very exciting life), usually
makes for less then suspenseful story. A novel has to be paced so it has peaks of
excitement that grow higher as it approaches the climax. Life, just doesn’t move
along speedily enough, as a novel must. Dialogue in reality can be so mundane as to
be absolutely boring.
One of my greatest methods of finding story ideas is to take one situation
from my life and ask, “what if I hadn’t run as fast as I had? What if I had been
caught? What then? Would I have suffered–been kidnapped–raped? – Then killed?
In my newest novel, My Sweet Audrina, due out in mid August of 82, the
First and Best Audrina meets her fate in the woods, while I could have met mine in
the valley between a ring of low hills that swallowed my screams for help, I was
lucky enough to have escaped. Pity my poor character who didn’t.
For a certainty in a novel I write the worst is bound to happen. But
fortunately I was a fast runner, and clever enough to avoid most pitfalls. My
characters are clever enough and fast enough, but by playing God, I always trip
them up in someway, so as to allow what I escaped to happen to them, and then the
fun begins. (Or terror.) It chills my blood to think maybe God up there is just
another aspiring novelist hoping to entertain himself too by letting the worst
happen, heaven forbid.
If you think back to the fairy tales you’ve read, all the stories ended once the
dragon, the giant, or the witch died. With these fabled words… and so they lived
happily ever after,” the story closed out. That’s because once happiness is achieved
the tension is gone. It is the striving, the difficulties, the obstacles to overcome that
makes for a wonderful tale you wish would never end. Even those romance writers
who wind up with their heroine finally capturing the man of her dreams, will when
writing the sequel, put that loving couple through hell again. For it’s the jeopardy
that we achieve the thrills, and never, never is love quite enough. Heaven is not
served to anyone on a pink platter. Heaven is the reward for surviving long and
When you sit at your typewriter to begin your novel, think back to some
traumatic event in your own life. Take it, change it about and make the worst
happen, then compound the trouble with more dilemmas. If your main protagonist
is lost in the desert, miles from civilization make a leak in the canteen so thirst is a
problem. If your character finds water, make it poisoned. If it isn’t poisoned, have
him/her fall down and break a leg so the water can’t easily be reached. In other
words, play God, a bored God who wants to be entertained (just as your readers do),
and bring on the dragons, witches, ogres and demons meaning all those little
calamities that can put our lives in peril.
We writers keep that fragile bubble of happiness always never thought I’d fly
to see him. Imagine my surprise when I rose at five in the morning to see the dew
on his “fabulous” rose garden, and found to my utter amazement, he had two pitiful
rose bushes struggling to survive near his back door.
That uncle of mine would make a first rate author. He could stretch a drive to
the city into a safari of many perils… and that’s what novels are all about. And in
your head tucked neatly in some brain closet, resides not one or two great novels
but hundreds. All you have to do is search, elaborate, ask again and again, what if?
—Then stretch rose bush into garden… but don’t forget the thorns.
Pity my poor character, Audrina, who didn’t.
For a certainty, in a novel I write the worst is bound to happen. There wasn’t
an Arden to weaken my determination, and perhaps I fought harder. A writer has
the chance to play God and heaven help us if that God above is just another aspiring
author hoping to entertain himself too by allowing the worst to happen always.
(Transcribed from the original document housed in the V.C. Andrews special collection at The
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. The collection’s website says this
article was published as “Turning a Profit from Memories” in Writer’s Magazine, November 1982