(Editor’s note: This 46th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Kathleen George, a professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Taken, Fallen, Afterimage, The Odds (an Edgar Award finalist for Best Novel), Hideout, Simple, and her forthcoming book, The Johnstown Girls. Below, she recalls the evolution of A Measure of Blood, her seventh novel featuring Pittsburgh homicide chief Richard Christie, which is being released this week by Mysterious Press/Open Road.)
I need to fall in love before I write a novel. In the case of A Measure of Blood it happened when I met a gorgeous child, the son of a distant relative of my husband--his half-niece. This woman, let us call her Angie, had wanted a child badly and decided to get pregnant by artificial insemination. She was at the top age for motherhood, but it worked. The child was physically beautiful, smart, too, but a little sad, a little nervous. Everybody at a Thanksgiving gathering wanted to please him, to entertain him, to make him calm and secure. Did he mind not having a father, I wondered. I suspected he did.
A few years later we found out that the boy’s mother was seriously ill and needed constant medical care. She was unable to care for the boy any longer. We were not young enough to take him and make a life for him (though I wished we were). Thankfully, other relatives of the right ages stepped in. But for me a plot began to form. What if a mother died leaving a child she’d had through artificial insemination with no one, no relative to claim him? And what if the clinic that had helped her to become pregnant had a policy of not revealing the sperm donor; what would happen?
That question then became: What would happen if a single mother were murdered and the man who did it wanted the child? Stalked the child. Got the child. What would the police have to go on?
At first I thought I would set the novel in New York (even though my Richard Christie series is
completely set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), because the actual person who inspired the story lives in that city. I began researching Child Services in New York and learned quickly that it is a tough system, insisting on immediate foster care, no wiggle room. Hard on the child, but also hard on my novel’s plot. So why, I asked myself, could a woman not get pregnant at a fertility clinic in New York and live her life in Pittsburgh? Ah, I was back on home ground and it felt good.
I created a mother out of several people I’d known. I saw Maggie Brown as a woman who loved her kid, who was always tired (from holding down three jobs), an artistic type--a painter who was getting discouraged about painting something she really believed in. She often let her son, 7 years old, mess with computer games and video games because she didn’t have the energy to stop him. She never told him anything about his father (and the fact is, she knew almost nothing about him from the clinic). So both she and her son, Matt, are surprised one day when a man from her past approaches them in a supermarket parking lot, furious that she didn’t tell him he had a son. The boy witnesses the angry confrontation. He wants to know if the man is his father. His mother tells him the man is not. A few months later, she’s dead and Matt has no one.
I keep writing about “parentified” children--those children who need to be strong, adult before it is time, because they either have damaged parents or no parents. These parentified children have appeared in all my books to this point, but perhaps most memorably in The Odds (2009). In that novel, four children are living on their own, managing to get to school and to find food, because they do not want to be separated. They are the Philips kids--Meg, Laurie, Joel, and Susannah. And they are definitely adults before their time. A good number of people fell in love with them (as I had, as I had to do to write that novel)
and asked me for more of them. But I couldn’t just force another story out of them. I wanted to visit them again … but how? Why? I found a way to bring them in for some scenes of A Measure of Blood. Who could be more sympathetic to bereft Matt Brown? Meg Philips knows how to talk to him. It was terrific fun to be able to bring her back.
(Right) Author Kathleen George
But my main team is still there. Commander Christie, his pal Detective Artie Dolan, his partner, Colleen Greer, and her lover, Detective John Potocki. And this case particularly shakes Christie. Seven years old, abandoned and parentified? He’s been there. He identifies. So he becomes overly involved in Matt’s case, trying to find him the perfect family. All the while he asks these questions: Who was Matt’s biological father? Who killed Matt’s mother? And are they the same person?
The couple Christie puts Matt with as hopeful adoptive parents have echoes of my husband and me. It’s easy to figure out the psychological connections in that invention! I made Jan Gabriel a theater director (as I have been) and she is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream (one of the Shakespeare plays I did not do) in the Charity Randall Theatre (where I spent much of my life). It was strange and wonderful to be able to bring in so much of my theater self to this novel. I set scenes in my office in the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt. And at the park across the street. And at the 7-Eleven down the street. And as things unfolded I had Jan do what I would have done to keep Matt safe. She cast him as the changeling child in the play so she could keep him near her.
But I know how those rehearsals are--people coming and going, the monomania of rehearsing. And Jan does not keep Matt safe. He’s gone. That’s the turning point of both the novel and of the boy’s life.
READ MORE: “What Is Kathleen George Reading?” (Writers Read).