Hey, all, Gerry Boyle here. And I’m sure I’m not the only Maine crimewriter who has heard this in the past week: “That Zumba story—boy, that would make a great book for you.”
The last time I got this many suggestions was when the guy torched the topless coffee shop, another great Maine tale. And it would make a good book, just like the Zumba story would.
Young woman moves to a small coastal town and opens a dance studio. Her Zumba class is a big hit, but so is her side job, for which she swaps her workout clothes for, well, not much, sells sex to half the married men in town, and secretly records the session for …
Well, this being a crime novel the recordings would be used for blackmail. The young woman, with an older guy for muscle, would extort money from her ostensibly upstanding clients by threatening to expose them (so to speak) to the community. Which would be a potentially profitable but very dangerous game. Push enough people hard enough and eventually somebody pushes back.
As is mixing fact with fiction, so let me say here that Alexis Wright, the real-life workout instructor in Kennebunk, Maine, has pleaded not guilty to charges of prostitution and tax evasion. The guy in question, Mark Strong Jr., has done the same. The names of the alleged clients are being released and published as I write this, in water-torturous batches of 25. The titillating story has gone viral and global and the next question is who will play Ms. Wright in the movie.
Alexis Wright, get an agent.
But if there were to be a movie, it wouldn’t be based on a book of mine, because this story, I’m sorry to say, is done, used-up, old news. I’m just relieved I don’t have a book just like this in the pipeline. Crime novelists don’t mind if life imitates art; they feel like they’re cheaing if it’s obviously the other way around.
Actually, I did write a book that bore a slight resemblance to the Kennebunk story. DAMAGED GOODS (2010) revolves around a mysterious young woman named Mandy who moves to the coastal town of Galway, Maine, and works as an escort out of her downtown apartment. Mandy is smart, philosophical, insightful, enigmatic. Some of her clients want to marry her. My protagonist, reporter Jack McMorrow, meets her in the course of reporting a story and likes her, too. And when one of her clients attacks her, McMorrow comes to Mandy’s rescue. In the end, Mandy proves to be even more of a puzzle than he bargained for, and her back story is to kill for.
But as usual, I digress. The elusive point here—aren’t they always in my posts?—is that, yes, we scour real life for bits and pieces of our plots and characters. But most crime/mystery novelists don’t lift stories whole from real life and plop them in novels. We like to think the power of invention is at work in our fiction. Remove that from the process and what you have is something that makes interesting reading in the newspaper—nobody can say the Zumba scandal isn’t good reading— but isn’t the fully formed stuff of a novel.
If I may be so bold, it isn’t art.
The novel would tell you what brought the fictional young woman to this situation. Why would she subject herself to this sort of life? What formed her to be this sort of deceiver, encouraging her customers with tales of their prowess, and all the while recording the act for her future profit. Where are her parents? Her family? Do they know? What were the increments in this woman’s evolution from 12–year-old in dance class to dancing for adult videos? Abused as a teenager? Pregnant and alone? Was our character taught early on that her attractiveness could be a survival tool? If so, what did that person go through to learn that harsh lesson?
And how long did our character think her secret would be kept in a small town? Did she subconsciously want this to come to light? To punish her customers? To punish herself? If so, for what?
I could go on (Hey, wait. I already have!). But that’s what we writers do. Take a seed of reality, plant it in on the blank page, and feed it with lots of imagination. That doesn’t mean we ever want the real-life suggestions to stop coming. And don’t think they’re not appreciated by us writers. (I file them away, trust me). It just may just take some time for those real-life stories to undergo the reincarnation that eventually brings them back—dismantled, rearranged, reshaped, rethought— as fiction.