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MICHAEL LOWENTHAL

Behind the Scenes

Like most writers, I've often been asked where I get my ideas. Perhaps it sounds coy to say I haven't got a clue, but much of the time, that's absolutely true.

I still have my earliest notes for what would become The Paternity Test, but the novella I originally began to sketch out bears little relation to the eventual novel. My very first idea, jotted down on April 15, 2006, was: "Character has survived a tragedy. Maybe his partner & child have died (in a fire?)." The idea was that the protagonist would have been out of the house doing something morally questionable, betraying his partner. And so his survivor guilt is all the worse, because his act of betrayal was what saved him from the fire.

How did that notion (which I almost immediately doubted, according to my notes, for its "improbability and melodrama") morph into The Paternity Test?

I haven't got a clue.

What I do know is how I eventually stole bits and pieces of my own experience in order to ground the novel in what I hoped would seem an authentic reality. Here are two examples:

1. One of the most important choices I made was to have Pat and Stu live in a house whose location is modeled almost exactly on that of the actual house where my father lives (and where I do my best writing). I think I made this choice not only because I love the house and am often staring out its picture windows when I am working, but also in reaction to the experience of writing my previous novel, Charity Girl. That book was set during World War I, a period about which I initially knew very little, and almost every logistical detail (What kind of shoes did women wear? How much did a trolley ride cost?) required painstaking research. Writing that novel left me beyond exhausted, and so I told myself that for my next story—especially for its settings—I should draw upon worlds I already knew intimately.

And so, when Pat and Stu stand on their deck and look out at the dunes of Sandy Neck, they are seeing a view very similar to what I am lucky enough to see when I'm at my father's house:

2. For Debora's background, I drew upon my growing love for Brazil and its people, and—more specifically—on a place I'd visited shortly before I began drafting The Paternity Test. My friend Jon Barrett, who was then editing the Metro newspaper in New York City, gave me the plum assignment of joining a travel writers' junket to Natal, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte. In return for a fabulous free week of sightseeing, I only had to write a 500-word squib about the place.

Little did I know that that trip would inspire a main character in my next novel. I'm especially amazed, looking back now at the brief article I wrote, that one of the few experiences I mentioned—taking buggy rides, "with emotion," down the steep dunes of Genipabu—would end up being so central to The Paternity Test. Indeed, it's the basis for the novel's concluding image, which I didn't know would be the case until the very moment I was writing those final lines.

Here's my article on Natal, as it appeared in the Metro, September 22, 2004.