Three women after surviving cancer. Will they have the courage to use their second chance?
Here’s Irene Vartanoff, whose life experiences figured into the shaping of her women’s fiction novel, Life Is Too Short, but she found that her characters surprised her as she wrote them. Here’s her Story Behind The Story.
The theme of my women’s fiction novel, Life Is Too Short, is that it’s never too late to make changes in your life that will bring you happiness, peace, or contentment. Sadly, this story was sparked by my late sister’s third and fatal bout of cancer. I got the idea when she and two of her oldest female friends were going through cancer treatment, and my sister recounted to me that one day all three of them had attended a funeral together and compared their situations. And laughed about them. As we all know, you have to laugh or you will cry, and these three brave ladies laughed that day. To honor their spirit, I began to write a hopeful story based on their situation.
My story was not about having cancer. It was not about my sister, either, but about how a person can feel about their life and then what a person might do about their life after getting a reprieve from cancer. At first I simply set my characters in motion.
I don’t generally have a plot outline in mind as I begin a story. What I might have is a vague sense of where my characters might end up. For Life Is Too Short, my initial thought was that my sister had absolutely loved going to see the total eclipse in 2017. She’d traveled with very good friends down south to do that, and she’d told me quite a bit about the science of the eclipse. I had taken notes. After her death I found some of the NASA handouts she had accumulated before her trip, too.
Other than placing the action of my story in 2017 and having it culminate in a trip to see the eclipse, I had no particular ideas other than to follow my sister’s friendship story in broad outline by making all my characters her age in 2017, having grown up and gone to school together in the same neighborhood, and having remained friends all their lives.
So far, I had no drama and no personalities. I had three women who had survived cancer, I had my opening scene of them leaving a cemetery together, and I had the eclipse. The very next thing I began to do was to differentiate their voices and their physical selves. Eileen became the sarcastic one, Kathy became the goody-goody one, and Charlotte became the one holding onto a terrible grief. As I fleshed out their stories, I started with what I knew about growing up in that place and in that time—the 1950s and 1960s in the suburban Washington, DC, area—and what that generation typically had gone through to find love and careers, have babies and still do meaningful work, please parents, live within the moral strictures of their upbringing, experience social and political upheaval, and more.
What I totally did not expect was that Steve, a friend of their same age, would show up as a male mirror of their lives. He would not be a romantic interest as such but would have his own stories of love and loss from the pivotal years of the late 1960s and early 1970s—when the Vietnam War loomed large in any young man’s mind because of the draft, and sexual behavior suddenly became very free.
Another utter surprise was the intensely hostile relationship one of my characters had with her aged mother. My own mother was so wonderful and kind to every one of her children and to our friends that I had no way to imagine a mean, rotten mom who tormented her child by endlessly comparing her to her sibling. Yet Eileen’s sarcasm had to spring from somewhere. I found a nonfiction book about miserable elderly people that gave advice on how their grown children could work to attain peace with such parents despite all their complaints and demands.
Once I had my toxic mother-daughter relationship, I had a story engine that helped me push and prod at least one of my characters into making life changes. Then I had to create something that would have the same effect for the other two women. I created a dilemma and a May-December romance between my grieving woman, Charlotte, and a very much younger man. I created an opportunity for my third woman, Kathy, to come to a turning point about her marriage to an unfaithful husband. And I threw in some drama because of Steve having sired children during the hippie era. As I followed the progress of each of their stories, I knew I was stating many truths about the circumstances of growing up in that place and time and in that particular social milieu. It felt good to write them down, to say, “This was how it was, but not any longer.”
The title of my book has a double meaning. People who have faced cancer have faced their mortality and they know that life is too short. In addition, fighting one’s whole life with a mean parent, or staying in an empty marriage, or even living wrapped up in grief, calls for the other meaning of the phrase. Life is too short to waste on those things, and that is what my characters learn. They each take steps to live better in whatever time they have remaining to them. So, despite the scary initial topic, Life Is Too Short is a story about hope and the varied paths people can take to be happy.
Award-winning author Irene Vartanoff fell in love with romances and comic books as a teenager. After working for Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Harlequin, Bantam, and Berkley, among other publishers, she now writes novels. Irene’s books so far range from women’s fiction to contemporary western romance to chicklit superhero adventure. A lifelong East Coast resident, Irene lives in a forest of tall oaks in the wilds of West Virginia.