I think of the first part of research for a novel as creating a space inside myself where my narrator can live. So if she has a layman's understanding of string theory because her husband is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and she wants some sense of how he sees the universe, I need to learn string theory. If she's so moved by the death of Princess Diana that she begins hearing Diana's voice in her head ? it's not as hokey as it sounds, I promise ? then I'll read all the Princess Diana biographies I can find ? forty-six, to be exact. If she spends five days in Paris, stays at the Ritz, eats dinner and gets her hair done in the hotel, me too! (Okay, I spent two nights at the Ritz, then moved to a cheaper but hipper neighborhood on the Left Bank.) And she's welcome to borrow and make her own any experience I've had or anything else I know.
For example, when Princess Diana died, it seemed that almost every writer was publishing a tribute or a memory or an analysis. I was moved by her death and utterly mystified by the world's response to it, including my own, but I found I had very few answers to the questions I thought the situation raised. What does it say about the human heart, our capacity to feel genuine grief for the loss of a stranger? Is it somehow pathetic to be emotionally invested in a celebrity we never even met? Or are we all connected in ways we don't fully perceive, and we respond as we do to certain celebrities because their lives, including their mistakes, feel like our own, writ large, and therefore make us feel like we're not as alone in the world as we might have feared?
At the time of her death, I was living in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the same small town where my husband, Robert Olen Butler, had been living when he won his Pulitzer, before we met. Although I'd published two novels by then, we were almost always introduced as "our Pulitzer-prize-winning author, Robert Olen Butler" ? now a slight pause, the volume dropping just a notch, "and his lovely wife." Sometimes they would go so far as to say, "his lovely wife, Elizabeth Dewberry," or "Elizabeth Newberry," or just "Elizabeth," but I'm not kidding, it was pretty frequent that "his lovely wife" was it. I mentioned this to a friend ? a university professor ? who I suspected had had the same experience. She said, "Oh yes, hislovelywife, all one word, that's me." And she laughed.
At first, I tried to laugh it off, too, and take the description as the compliment it was meant to be, telling myself it didn't matter if some people saw me as nothing more than Bob's wife. It wasn't how he saw me, and it wasn't how I saw myself. But it started to eat at me.
Partly in response to feeling fragile about my sense of self, I started studying religion and spirituality, and when I read that contemporary physics was coming to the same conclusion about the true nature of the universe that many religions reached long ago, I started trying to learn physics. It soon become clear to me that if I could begin to understand subatomic physics and contemporary cosmology ? which are about as mysterious as God ? I would want to use this elegant way of comprehending the spiritual dimension of the physical universe in my life and in my work.
So for years, I had my fascination with Diana and the world's response to her death, my experiences as a lovely wife, and my interest in physics on separate back burners. But around the hundredth time I was introduced as Bob's lovely wife, they began to merge. I felt irritated, and I started noticing how many wives of successful men ? not to mention the ultimate lovely wife, Princess Diana ? are caught in the same trap: their public identities have at least as much to do with the fact that they are somebody's wife as with who they are. One day, in the grocery store, I saw a magazine with Jennifer Anniston on the cover with a big title that read, "Mrs. Brad Pitt," and I thought, "Okay, on behalf of lovely wives everywhere, I have something to say." I still didn't know exactly what I wanted to say, but I began to sense a character who, like Diana and me, was married to an older, well-situated man ? in her case, an eminent physicist ? and that Diana's death was going to play a role in her story.
Fortunately for me, Diana died in Paris instead of Bosnia or Pakistan, so I hopped on a plane to Paris, and I wandered the streets and took a taxi through the tunnel where Diana died and visited the place where most Parisian mourners left flowers in the week after the death (and still do). And the story began to feel alive.
This is one of my favorite moments from the whole trip: I was eating dinner alone at Espadon, the restaurant in the Ritz where Diana and Dodi made a brief appearance on the night they died. Almost everybody in the room had arrived at eight and were going through the several-course tasting menu at about the same rate, so I was taking notes, drawing the seating arrangement, listing the foods I was eating, and describing the interior, including the waiters, the harpist, and the other diners, but also imagining my character talking with her husband and his friends over dinner. During the cheese course, a few minutes after ten o'clock, the same time Diana and Dodi entered the restaurant on the night I was imagining, a big clap of thunder rang out and a huge storm blew up out of nowhere, with the wind blowing so hard that some of the wrought-iron chairs on the terrace just outside the restaurant started moving ? we could hear them scraping the floor. Somebody opened one of the glass doors to the terrace, and everybody in the restaurant stopped eating, stopped drinking, stopped talking, and every head turned toward the open door and the driving rain outside. The waiters quickly closed the door and set about restoring order and serving dessert, but the mood of the evening had shifted palpably and permanently ? every conversation had been interrupted, and now everyone in the room was talking about what an amazing thing had just occurred. I felt like I'd been given a glimpse of what it must have felt like that night when Diana walked in. All week, little things like that kept happening, little gifts, and all week, I listened to my narrator, and through her, to Diana's spirit as they challenged even their own preconceptions about the ways their marriages defined them and the ways they defined themselves. And I set them loose in a late-summer Paris full of mourners and tourists and Frenchmen and physicists and photographers, and His Lovely Wife become the story they told.