I was eight years old the year I realized I “wanted” to be a writer, and that was also the year that my mother gave me a subscription to the Nancy Drew Book Club. This was 1961 and every girl who loved writing and reading fantasized about becoming a titian-haired sleuth with two best friends and a rumble seat. The first story I wrote after reading several of the Drew mysteries was entirely centered on how the revealing evidence was found. No motive, no crime, no criminals, just the deductive reasoning one uses to “find the evidence.” The only readers I had for that story were my parents. My father just said, “Umph!” My mother, who was only slightly more interested, said, “Who is the main character?” Full of feelings of failure and chagrin, I put my story away and became hell-bent on reading rather than writing, which was a talent that, my mother told me, would certainly develop as I grew older and began to understand more about “character.” Though neither my mother nor I realized it, I was already gathering experience in character through two main influences that were in apparent contradiction to each other: the saints' legends I was reading in my prayer book, and the less than saintly nuns at Immaculate Conception Grammar School.
For instance, Sister Mary St. Agnes was, in character, nothing like the Virgin and Martyr under whose auspices she was teaching. And though our religion teacher was called Sister Mary St. John the Baptist, no one ever saw her eating locusts, and no matter how much many of us may have prayed, she still came to class each day with her head solidly on her shoulders. In short, I was learning not only about character but also about irony, obsession, pity, remorse, miracles, character flaws, good, evil, and miserable, tragic endings.