Kelly Braffet on Writing Save Yourself

How real-life ripples make novels living, breathing things.

Save YourselfKelly Braffet has written a novel of unnerving power—darkly compelling, compulsively addictive, and shockingly honest. This piece explores how everyday life jumps into her creative process and shakes things up.

By Kelly Braffet

Novels are odd, cumulative things. Decisions made on a whim end up rippling through the rest of the book, and sometimes—in direct contravention of the laws of physics—the further they travel, the bigger they get. A casual mention of a car’s broken air conditioner leads to a later scene where the window levers break, too, and after that the character has to drive around in an oven, and before you know it things have gotten so darn symbolic that even you, the author, are impressed at your own forethought. Which, of course, doesn’t exist; you were just thinking about that car you had in high school with no A/C, and how on hot days you’d stare at other, nicer cars with their windows rolled up, and be envious.

Sometimes, though, the ripples start in the real world—with a crime, a tragedy, some profoundly nonfictional horror—and the events in your book take on meanings that you don’t intend in an ugly way, an uncomfortable one. For instance: my third novel, Save Yourself, is set in western Pennsylvania. When I was a kid, my mom listened to a morning radio show that featured a “Friday Morning Joke-Off,” and my favorite caller on this show, who told odd, off-kilter jokes that appealed to me, identified herself by the name of the eastern Ohio town where she lived. My sister-in-law, a physician’s assistant, happened to do a training rotation in the same town, so when I found myself with a character from Ohio, that’s the town I chose for her.

So that was how my character, Caro Haller, ended up being from Steubenville, Ohio. Steubenville, of the Big Red football team, and the cell phones, and the gang rape. That Steubenville.

All of that had yet to happen when I gave Caro her hometown. The book was well along in the publication process by the time the rape case broke, and suddenly what had been a simple, convenient choice was suddenly loaded with a very unpleasant resonance. Complicating matters was that most of that resonance was already in my novel: there’s a great deal of sex in Save Yourself, and a great many cell phones, and both serve some pretty unpleasant functions in the story. It is, in large part, a story about local notoriety, and how deeply the places we are from infect us. I’m told the book isn’t easy to read, emotionally. It’s certainly not a pretty story, and it was never intended to be.

To have that story connected with the real-life Steubenville case, though, was something else entirely. Most of my readers would know about Steubenville only in the context of the crime. Would people think I’d intended the reference? Would it color the way they read my book? And one of my biggest concerns was that readers from the Steubenville area—particularly the girl herself—would feel used, manipulated. Even if the chances that she would read my book were infinitesimally small: no. No more of that. Not for her.

And that’s why Caro Haller is no longer from Steubenville, Ohio. I changed it at the last possible minute. If the timing of either my book or the crime had been slightly different, my book would be out there, carrying all of that resonance I didn’t intend. It could still happen; a new crime with even more similarities to my story could break tomorrow, or next month, or three years from now. This is what happens when you publish a book: it becomes a part of the world. It’s not yours anymore, to protect or explain or defend. Which is how it should be; but while I can, I’ll make every effort to make sure that the message it carries is nobody’s but my own.

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