Many months ago, I mentioned that there were several elements in Chasing Fireflies that were inspired by my own experience in high school. This certainly isn’t an invitation to assume that every detail was based on reality (my life was not nearly so interesting or dramatic). I never had my clothes stolen from the girl’s locker room (thank god), and while I did fall in love with a boy in math class, his father was not a convicted murderer. I can appreciate, however, that high school is a time wrought with difficulties. Everyone is struggling to make sense of who they are and who they want to be, and bullying – sadly – is a reality for some. I also grew up in an fairly affluent area, and saw huge class differences among the student body. Some kids got brand new cars for their birthday. Others had to skip lunch because money was tight. This social stratification played heavily into the central theme I wanted to develop: that you can’t judge someone based on the clothes they wear, the family they come from, or the rumors you hear. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. It was also inspired by my discovery of the word sonder, which according to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk. I try to keep this in mind when I’m writing. I feel it’s important to remember that even secondary characters have complex lives the reader only ever catches a glimpse of. Take Chase for example. Chase is a character who has very few redeeming qualities, but after his accident, you get a fleeting glimpse inside the world of a teenage boy struggling to come to terms with his mother’s illness while coping with an overbearing, abrasive father. Does that excuse his behavior? Of course not, but it’s always good to recognize you’re never looking at the whole picture when you pass someone in the school hallway or sit behind someone on the bus. I’m not sure if my readers will pay this much attention – congratulations to those who noticed! – but the password to Chase’s phone spells Alice, the name of his mother, who suffers from dementia and can’t even recognize him. This small detail exposes the otherwise invisible reality of the excruciating emotional pain Chase endures, loving a mother who doesn’t know him.
For those who are curious, there was one character I based off of a real person, and that was the math teacher, Mr. MacAllistair. Mr. MacAllistair was inspired by my own math teacher in high school, Mr. Appleby, and Mr. Appleby was hands down the best math teacher I have ever had. The man was a genius, and universally respected – no one spoke out of turn in his class and there was no goofing off. However, embarrassing as it is to admit, I was absolutely terrified of him, so much so that if I were to see him again, I would probably duck and run.