Why I Made Jon a Paraplegic

In response to one of my blog posts, one of you recently mentioned that BRASS RING was the first of my books you read, and you wondered why I “made Jon a paraplegic.” Since the answer is not a short one, I decided to put it in a post. It will give you a good idea of how the creative mind (or at least, my personal creative mind) works.
harpers ferry bridge.jpgThe idea for BRASS RING came to me when I was living in Alexandria, Virginia. Every day, as I drove to my social work job at Children’s Hospital in Washington DC, I passed a woman standing on the overpass above the beltway. She held a handmade, illegible cardboard sign. I began wondering what her story was (something I never really did find out). Around the same time, I read a newspaper article about a woman who killed herself by jumping from a bridge–the same bridge she and her sister had been thrown from when they were small children. The two situations began to merge in my mind, and an opening scene started to take shape.
When I think of a scene, it becomes very vivid in my imagination. I saw the bridge that connects Virginia to West Virginia near one of my favorite small towns, Harpers Ferry, WV. It was snowy. A blizzard, actually. I saw a woman, her hair and coat caked with snow, standing outside the guardrail of the bridge. Then I saw another woman, who came to be named Claire, trying to talk her out of jumping.
As I played with the scene in my mind, I realized that Claire and her husband Jon had been driving across the bridge in the blizzard, the only vehicle on the road. The scene between Claire and the woman was riveting to me. I felt Claire’s desperation as she tried to dissuade the woman from jumping, and I knew she would fail. But one thing puzzled me: why was Claire risking her welfare to talk this woman out of jumping? Why not Jon?
I looked at their car and saw in the back seat. . . a wheelchair.
I groaned to myself, because all I could think of was the massive amount of research I now had in front of me to make Jon disabled enough to require a wheelchair. Massive amount, indeed! That’s another story altogether, and I will always be grateful to the disabled Vietnam vet who went out of his way to help me understand Jon emotionally, physically, psychologically and sexually.
So that’s how Jon came to be a paraplegic. I love his character, and I can’t imagine BRASS RING without him being precisely the man he is.


  1. Margo on January 31, 2008 at 8:28 am

    What a magnificent imagination you have Diane. Is it any wonder you create such unique and riveting novels! To me, that is an amazing story you just explained to us and I find it utterly fascinating how you develop characters and scenes by witnessing everyday events…your creative mind starts taking over and actually speaks to you! Diane, you are a true artist in every sense of the word and such an inspiration to us all. I loved reading BRASS RING and I agree, Jon was a perfect character exactly as he was.

  2. Liz Johnson on January 31, 2008 at 11:25 am

    This is the 1st time I have ever done this – “blog” – not sure about it. Brass Ring was the novel that introduced me to you, Diane. Unrelated question – what is the difference between the above “mail” and “website”? Back to your writing – I was so taken by your knowledge of behavior, characters, what drives people to do what they do, that I went on a fruitful search of all your work and have loved everything I’ve read – being a counselor, or sorts, I have spent my life trying to understand how people get to where they are. I do know why – I consider my knowledge and insights almost more of a curse because I understand them so well, but don’t know enough to help them change. I’ve worked primarily with adolescents and teen mothers and have decided that I am the “mother” they didn’t have – so I try to be a role model, without lecturing too much, in the hopes that they will learn appropriate and loving ways to live their own lives. Not immediately, of course, as life is the journey, but when I enounter former clients/students (as this is a community of only 25.000), and they remember something good from our interactions, or tell me that I really helped them in a particular situation, I feel like I’ve made a difference. Much of your work validates me. Is that weird?

  3. Diane Chamberlain on January 31, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Thank you, Margo. I know from the paintings of yours I’ve seen that YOU know how to put your imagination to work in creating something amazing.
    Liz, welcome to the blog! (To answer your posting question, “mail” is your email address, which is never revealed. “website” is for your website address if you have one. If you did, people could click on your post signature to go to your website. I know it’s confusing at first!)
    I’m so glad you enjoyed BRASS RING and my other stories. I’m touched that you feel as though my writing validates your work. How wonderful! Having spent most of my social work/psychotherapy career working with teens, I can tell you have an intuitive feel for them and their “journeys.” I love your approach of modeling instead of lecturing. And there is nothing more rewarding than knowing you made a difference in their lives. I hope you’ll keep up that important work . . . and I also hope you’ll continue to hang out here on the blog with us!

  4. Liz on January 31, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks, Diane, for the answer. You are very kind because that had to be a “DUH!” moment. Clearly, I am an internet novice. Stands to reason, I have no website! Or use for one yet. What a great story re: Brass Ring. I will have to re-read it now. I’m always amazed when my favorite authors are able to tell a new and complex story, yet keep the qualities that make them my favorites. That’s not always true with some authors I have given up – I needed more from them in terms of who the people were or the stories became too similar. I love as much detail as you can put into a character – I think I read a blog earlier where you mentioned Prince of Tides was a favorite of yours – I think I voted for Bill Clinton based on the fact that he said it was one of his favorites – what a reason! Gives much insight into what makes people tick. Is that why I love the Kiss River trilogy so much? I feel like I know the characters. So, as I vicariously enjoy the retreat you recently had, what music do you all like?

  5. Diane Chamberlain on January 31, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    >>I think I read a blog earlier where you mentioned Prince of Tides was a favorite of yours – I think I voted for Bill Clinton based on the fact that he said it was one of his favorites

  6. Julie on February 1, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    I don’t think I’ve read Brass Ring … except, I have this weird thought that maybe I read it hundreds of years ago when I was a new mom and read something like 10 books a week. The cover is very familiar. Need to find it again if so!!
    BUT. I did read Breaking the Silence last week and loved it. I think it’s a toss up now between this one and Cee Cee for my favorite. I still have a few to go, though! Man, the experimental treatment stuff was creepy. Kind of reminds me a bit of the eugenics stuff Jodi Picoult explored in Second Glance.

  7. Julie on February 2, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Just had to add a obnoxious remark because I can’t help laughing every time I browse to this page to see if you have a new post.
    “Why I made Jon a Paraplegic” sounds quite sadistic … if you don’t know what it’s talking about. Hehe!! 😉

  8. Diane Chamberlain on February 3, 2008 at 12:28 am

    Julie, first, I’m glad you enjoyed BREAKING THE SILENCE. it’s one of my personal favorites. I got the idea one day when I was perusing the stacks at the library and found a book on the CIA mind control experiments. how could I resist creating a story around that?
    Being a writer can indeed be an exercise is sadism (although most of the time it feels masochistic. . . ). I can think of a few titles for future posts: “Why I killed Isabel in THE BAY AT MIDNIGHT.” “Why I made Genevieve die during childbirth in THE SECRET LIFE OF CEECEE WILKES.” “Why I gave CeeCee a flaming case of rheumatoid arthritis.” “Why I made Corinne phobic?” I could go on and on and on. Are you having fun torturing your own characters in your work-in-progress?

  9. Julie on February 3, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    Yeah … since I’m in revisions now, I’m working on tightening the screws. >:-} I was being way too easy on them.

  10. Julie on February 4, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Hey, I forgot to mention that I saw The Life and Times of CeeCee Wilkes on the table at Costco last week! It was a trade paperback. Did you say that mass market paperbacks were coming out, too?

  11. Julie on February 4, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Um, I mean, The Secret Life… LOL I keep calling it that for some reason.

  12. Diane Chamberlain on February 4, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    Julie, I’ve been hearing from lots of people that they saw (and some actually bought! Yippee!) CeeCee at Costco in the past few days. Right now, there are no plans to publish it in mass market ppb. Most of my readers seem to prefer the larger size.
    Hope you’re making your characters suffer now. 😉

  13. Liz on February 4, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    OK. This is a club I don’t belong to, but am enjoying the role of observer. I’ve figured out what trade paperback is, but what is mass market ppb? I’m guessing it’s the typical size paperback. If so, I do like the trade size better, also. Diane, how can I get a copy of Breaking the Silence? I read a review and decided I haven’t read it. Hmmmm. Thought I’d read all your books, except the short story. Or else I’ve forgotten it and would enjoy reading it again.

  14. Diane Chamberlain on February 4, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Liz, of COURSE you belong here!
    You’re right about trade vs mass market sizes. Maybe I’ll do a post about book sizes to clarify.
    As for getting a copy of BREAKING THE SILENCE: it’s out of print, and the best way to get a copy is through my website. On the home page (click on my underlined name below), scroll down to see the block about ordering my early books on the right hand side. I don’t have copies of all my out of print books, but I do happen to have a bunch of that one for some reason.

  15. Brenda on February 8, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    Seems like I am the last one to write-try to wait until weekends. I KNEW all along (or guessed ) that Jon was probably in the wheel chair, so that his wife could be the protagonist–the heroine so to speak. That probably comes from teaching so much English literature and writing. It is fun teaching the kids how to understand novels, poetry, stories…Shakespeare…That AHAH moment is great…When they think poetry (we are doing that now) is not relevant…wait until they do SONNET by Shakespeare, Frost’s “Road Not Taken”, “In Flander’s Fields” or “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night…” They can really relate to those…just some of the ones I do…
    I love this BLOG and love getting to know all of you.

  16. Ellie on December 28, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    I just wanted to say that I have just read Brass Ring and wanted to congratulate you on a really sensitive and accurate protrayal of a paraplegic man. I get really fed up of protrayals of people with disabilities being overachievers or total failiures, but Jon has his own personality that isn’t defined by his spinal injury and is a generally well rounded character. I love him just the way he is and thank you for making the book such a pleasure to read.

  17. Diane Chamberlain on December 28, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Ellie, thank you for this compliment. I wanted Jon to be a human being first, a paraplegic second. I really liked him as a person and I’m glad that came through. thanks for taking the time to comment.

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