Many writers want their stories to be as relatable as possible. The stories we know and understand are the ones we can relate to the best. Authors, such as Alice Munro, do a spectacular job in creating compelling characters that could easily resemble a relative or friend.
There are some authors, however, who delve into a narrow subject matter to achieve this same connection. Recently, acclaimed writers like Junot Diaz take particular communities with characters possessing odd, quirky characteristics and use them to establish that desired relatability.
In particular, author of The Hopeful, Tracy O’Neill, involves readers through her characters’ unique circumstances, specifically in the highly competitive world of figure skating and the isolation of mental illness. Her characters are cut off from the rest of the world, even when they aren’t competing anymore. But their sadness puts us all on a basic human level.
In our newest column, we’re asking authors to answer just one question about their book. Here’s what Tracy O’Neill told us about her novel, The Hopeful.
Question: With the topics of figure skating and depression being so particular in nature, who have you written this book for?
Tracy O’Neill: While it’s true that the world of figure skating is a singular and strange world, most of the book isn’t set at the rink but in the asylum of memory. Ali, my protagonist, is no longer a skater but an outsider. She’s been dispossessed of the territories of her dreams and struggles to envision a new world for herself. Most of the novel’s geography is a home in suburban New England and psychotherapy sessions.
At the same time, life happens everywhere, even in sparkly dresses and on artificial ice. It was important to me that the novel emerge in unfamiliar movements, both on the sentence level and in its scenes. Charles Baxter’s “Defamiliarization” is one of my favorite essays, and I very much wanted to defamiliarize the mid-life crisis. I wanted to show the way in which truncated dreams may advance even a very young person into the same sense that opportunities have been foreclosed, that there is not enough time left in one human life to reach meaningful existence. I also hoped that in setting the novel in a social niche where women are granted primacy, I would emphasize the unfortunate rarity of places in which women’s work is celebrated.
Through the world of figure skating I felt that I could instantiate many themes about ageing, the relationship between mind and body, the precarious notion of meritocracy, the perils of obsession, extra-human love, the tyranny of time, the familiar— and perhaps glib— call to “find yourself,” how desire constitutes selfhood, and, of course, hope. I think that these themes are important to many readers, but I don’t expect every reader to be attracted to The Hopeful. Perhaps it sounds like a tautology, but I wrote the book I wanted to write. I didn’t think about sales. I didn’t write a book in hopes that it would be stocked at Walmart. I just wrote the book that felt true to me.