Whose Life is Amanda’s Based On, Really?

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When writing, especially in the first person, there’s always a question in the back of my mind: How much of this character is actually me? It’s a bit of a struggle to make sure that I don’t take the easy way out and just write the characters to behave as I do, or to draw on past experiences.

In my novel, MILKED, my protagonist is admittedly a little like me. Amanda Keane is also a smartass brunette mom from the Chicagoland area, with fabulous girlfriends and a love of Chipotle.  But, I have never been and never will be a wet nurse (sorry to disappoint—it’s not an autobiography!), and my relationship history is a lot less turbulent. I’m also a proud suburbanite and can’t imagine living downtown Chicago again.

And one thing about Amanda that’s very different: she is much, much braver than I am.

In the novel, Amanda is downsized out of a job and raising her daughter on her own. She handles both of these situations the best she can, with courage and grace.  In part, I was inspired to create the life of Amanda thanks to many of the folks who surround me. But, they’re probably not who you expect.

I’ve worked at nonprofits for the past seven years—two amazing organizations that are dedicated to giving a hand up to the working poor and the homeless in my community. A lot of the client families that came in were facing difficult situations through no fault of their own: corporate layoffs; an unexpected medical emergency; abandonment by a husband or domestic partner. These circumstances can lead to incredibly hard times for many people—especially at the height of the recession—and more people have needed to seek help than ever before.

And, it can be a very humbling experience to use a food pantry, or to file for government assistance. No one wants to do this. No one enjoys relying on others. Whether an individual or family came to us after a lifetime of poverty or only having recently fallen on tough times, it wouldn’t matter. The important thing has always been to help people in any possible way, to be sensitive, and to treat them with the utmost dignity and respect.

One of the most gratifying parts of working for a nonprofit is seeing the success stories unravel before my eyes. The mom who had been out of work for years, and after some job coaching and resume help, is back on a payroll and supporting her family. The family that had been couch-surfing for months after getting evicted, and now has a place to call home. The child that now reads at her own grade level, thanks to free tutoring. The list goes on and on. They’re all heroes to me.

I wanted to write Amanda as someone who’s a little bit like some of these heroes I’ve met. She has a crappy hand dealt to her, but through a little know-how, a little resourcefulness, and a little help from others, she overcomes her challenges and becomes a victor of her circumstances. I hope you find Amanda to be a little heroic, too.