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Behind the scenes

TELL ME ONE THING was inspired by a photograph, my own coming of age years in the 1980s, and my lifelong love of art and underdogs. I hope you enjoy learning a bit about how the novel came to life here.


Mary Ellen Mark, 1990Valdese, North Carolina

I first met this photograph in graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where I was studying contemporary art. We were discussing the relationship between artists and their subjects, and the image haunted me. There was something vaguely reminiscent about it. I recognized that look on Amanda's face.


I would think about the photograph from time to time for the next 15 years. And then one day my husband and I were on a road trip driving through rural Pennsylvania and listening to NPR. The photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, had recently passed away and NPR did a segment on the photograph. They had found Amanda, then in her late 30s, and asked her why she allowed herself to be photographed. She said she thought someone would see the photos and come help her. That was obviously not the case.

After the segment ended, we stopped for gas in a tiny town in the middle of Pennsylvania. My story started to take shape, and the town became the fictional Riverdale in TELL ME ONE THING. 

I wrote an article for Writer's Digest about this as well.



Having studied art history, I had a good foundation of knowledge about New York City in the 1980s. It was the epicenter of experimentation and creativity and felt like the necessary place for Quinn to call home. 


I decided to begin TELL ME ONE THING in 1980 to draw parallels to social and economic issues that continue to challenge us. Many of the problems we face now are the result of poor policy that created the dramatic economic inequality we experience today. 

1980 was a pivotal year for me personally. My parents divorced and for years afterwards my single mother struggled to support herself and my older sister and me. For us, the early 80s were a time of crisis. We lived just outside of Detroit, which was also experiencing a great deal of turmoil, both economically and socially. Racism was on the rise and there was a growing divisiveness based on a shared condition of need and an incorrect assumption of scarcity. The rich began getting richer while the middle class essentially disappeared. 


I moved from Michigan to New York City in 2005 (and still live there today), but recreating the 1980s took a lot of research and exploration. I read books, I studied art from that time, I wandered alleyways where clubs and artist studios used to be, I talked to artists who were young and actively exhibiting during that time, and I scoured archives. 

To realistically portray Quinn and her friends, I had think about what kinds of clubs they'd go to, where they'd hang out. I chose Club 57 and Mudd Club because those were the venues where artists like Keith Haring and Basquiat hung out and where musicians like Debbie Harry and The Ramones might be found. These were the creative types that Quinn would have been in community with. A fantastic archive for Club 57 can be found online, which also helped to recreate scenes found in the book. Shirm Mag has some great Mudd Club history as well. Plus Paradise Garage, which is the club that Gene wants emulated for his last birthday. 

For Lulu, I was able to draw upon some of my personal experiences and my growing up in very close proximity to a disenfranchised rural Michigan, which is quite similar to that of Pennsylvania. 

I wrote a bit about my coming of age years in this essay

I've been asked what I hope readers will take away from the book and it's this: I hope we can start to find ways back to each other, to realize that we're not so different from one another, and to come together to finally create the change we all deeply deserve.

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