Born Wicked: On Being a Sister

5 years ago

How are you like your characters? readers will inevitably ask, and with Born Wicked my answers come easily: I'm not as selfless or brave as Cate. I've never climbed a tree, and I have a black thumb. But like Cate, I am a worrier who has to be pushed into adventures. Like her, I am an introvert. And like her, I am the oldest of three sisters. Let me be clear: my sisters are not Maura and Tess. But I did draw on our relationships to portray the Cahill sisters’ complicated, competitive love.

Like Cate’s relationship with Tess, my relationship with Shannon has been mostly easy, untroubled by any rivalries. She’s eight years younger than me; I remember coloring with her, playing Candyland, practicing her letters. I am purely glad for her successes. I try to be the voice of reason, encouraging her independence, now that she is halfway across the country attending grad school in Utah, but I feel fiercely protective of her. Technically, she is my half-sister, but we grew up together; I love her; that is whole and consuming.

And like Cate’s relationship with Maura, my relationship with Amber is more complicated. We are three years apart; we fought like mad growing up. Childhood hair-pulling and pinching grew into vicious words and fights over the phone line. I don’t think I realized until I moved away how much I defined myself in relation to and in opposition of her. Growing up, shuttling between Mom’s house and Dad’s, the only girl grandchildren after my dad and his three brothers, we were a unit: “the girls” this, “the girls” that. I played clarinet and saxophone in high school; so did she. I won writing awards; so did she. I still remember my horror when my grandmother suggested she try out for the school play, too. Theatre was mine.

We defined ourselves in contradictions: Am liked blue, I liked pink; she liked dogs, I liked cats; she was messy, I was neat; she was strong-willed and argumentative, I was the revoltingly cheerful peacemaker. I still remember my shock (silly, after so long) when, as a senior in college, she dyed her hair dark brown. I was the brunette!

I was jealous of her, in a hundred tiny pin-prick ways. I always felt – still feel, sometimes, to be honest – that she was the pretty one, thin and blonde. So it’s easy for me to write Cate’s insecurity, her conviction that Maura is prettier and cleverer. But as we’ve gotten older, as Amber and I faced our dad’s divorce and our grandparents’ deaths together, I’ve found comfort in being “the girls,” too. At long last, I can cheer for my sister’s successes without calling my own into question. Such a simple thing – it embarrasses me how long it took me to grow past those petty rivalries of our childhood.

I was asked in an interview recently whether I considered Born Wicked a romance about a witch or a book about sisters. I do love writing the kissing scenes, but at its heart, I said, it’s a book about Cate and Maura and Tess.

And it wouldn’t be the same if I weren’t a big sister myself.

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