Every now and then someone asks me, why do you write about people like that?
I ask, people like what?
Well, these folks say, you seem like a pretty happy person, more or less, and you have a great marriage and you like where you live and you love your dog and you don’t worry about having enough to eat or your health, so why don’t you write about nice people?
Nice people? I ask (because although I know what they mean, I like to tease.)
Yes, I don’t like a lot of your characters, they’re too . . .
Messy? I ask.
Ah. Well, here’s a little secret: I’m messy. I think most people are, even if some dress nicer than others and don’t have stains on their trousers, even if some live in fancy houses and not under bridges, even if some have never been to jail and don’t know how to make potato peel liquor in a toilet. And I kind of like messy people. No, not kind of, I do like messy people. Some of my best friends are messy and complicated and imperfect. They’re my tribe, my family, my people.
I have a friend, Sister Rita. She’s a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. I once asked her why the order was dedicated to Joseph. She laughed and said, because he’s not the main show. She said the Sisters serve the ‘dear neighbor without distinction’ and do whatever is needed. I bet they help a lot of messy people, like fallen women and sufferers from disease and tax collectors, you know, the people a certain carpenter from Galilee hung with and fed with bread and fish and wine and . . .
Sometimes what I do with my stories is bear witness. It might not be much, but my hope is twofold — that someone might recognize him or herself and not feel so alone, and that someone might just look at the next messy person they see with a little more compassion.
My new book — THE EMPTY ROOM — is about an alcoholic woman, and it goes on sale today. I’m an alcoholic. Some of my best friends are alcoholics — messy and complicated and broken people. I love their stories, because every day one of them stays sober is a miracle, and I’ve grown to believe in such things, messy though they may be.