Sherry Thomas Reflects On Secret Identities

Author Sherry Thomas reflects on the thought "I never knew that about you" in honor of her May release, His At Night.


This past Saturday I scrolled through the available titles at the Red Box nearest my house and was thrilled to discover that they had in stock The September Issue, a behind-the-scenes documentary on the production of the September 2008 issue of Vogue magazine (the September issue being the most important issue in any given year).

I don’t read Vogue — my fashion tastes aren’t that haute. But I have certainly heard of Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, often described as the most powerful woman in the $300 billion fashion industry. Moreover, I can easily identify her — with her trademark bob and her shades — in a line-up.

Ms. Wintour is well aware of her power and unhesitant about using it. I find her slightly scary and downright fascinating — so of course I relished The September Issue, filled with scene after scene of La Wintour being La Wintour.

So there she is, a cross between an autocrat and a goddess, the storied Vogue magazine her personal fiefdom, her well-toned rear possibly scaly from being kissed so often and so hard. And then, unexpectedly, late in the film, there comes a clip of her speaking of her siblings. She has a brother in London who helps locate housing for the low-income, a sister very much involved in farmers’ rights in Latin America, and another brother who is the political editor of The Guardian — the U.K’s leading leftist newspaper. “They find what I do…” — here La Wintour hesitates a minute — “…amusing.”

And suddenly Anna Wintour becomes human: she is no longer invulnerable. At the pinnacle of her success, with all the authority and influence she wields, there are still people she cares deeply about who view what she does not as trivial, necessarily, but certain as not all that important in the greater scheme of things.

That is, for me, the most powerfully illuminating moment in the film.

And that is, in brief, why I dig character-driven fiction.

In real life, we can be acquainted with people for years without quite knowing who they really are on the inside. But in a well-written romance, no matter what guises the hero and the heroine put on to face the world, the essence of their character is laid bare for us by the end of 400 pages.

I love that. I love getting past the surface and getting to know someone — fictionally, at least — with almost unbearable intimacy. And the more their private persona differs from their public persona, the more satisfying it is to peel back the layers and reveal what lies beneath.

  As a writer, I always try to construct characters who aren’t what they seem at first. But in my new book, His At Night, the hero, a super-sharp man with dark secrets of the soul, is literally pretending to be someone he is not: a happy-go-lucky idiot.
Needless to say, for a heroine who believes she has married an idiot, it’s quite a process of discovery.
And while the amplitude of her shock is greater, her fundamental reaction is not so different from, for example, my finding out, some seven, eight years after first meeting her, that the mother of one of my son’s classmates also writes romance. It’s that “I never knew that about you” moment.

Let’s face it, we tend to sort and label people — Some Other Mom From School, The Invincible La Wintour, or This Idiot I Married — and then, if not dismissing said folks outright, at least not think too much more about them.

But in an “I never knew that about you” moment, we go beyond our usual perceptions and find an unexpected connection, an understanding that didn’t exist before.
And I can never get enough of it.