So many strange people piled into my head. One by one, I cornered them, questioned them, and wrote their story. All done. Time to leave. But they stayed around, staged a sit-in, forced me to find a place for them in my novel. They're still there, stealing scenes throughout the book. Who behaves like this? Characters. Let me explain.

The first book I ever wrote was nonfiction. I talked with so-called unskilled workers and then I explained to the world all the skills they had, how those skills benefited their employers and how they benefited the people who had them. I explored and revealed a world everybody could see but few bothered to understand, including the people who lived within it. It was a hopeful book—about crummy work being not as bad as we thought, and about the ways it could be even better.

Writing Touch, I talked with people who knew marriages and relationships gone terribly wrong. I learned how some women lived past such calamities. Well, some women and one man named Tony. I learned how they recovered. How some of them went on to help others recover. And how a few of them helped to eliminate the calamities, so fewer would ever have to recover. I think it’s a hopeful book. The calamities are as bad as we thought. Worse. But some women are making them easier to move past, and others fight to make them fewer.

For the first book, I talked to people who sat across from me for an hour. For Touch, I lived among people who settled into my mind, who fought and made love, who ate great food and drank acid wine, and who left a mess I’ll never get clean. Especially since they’re hanging around for another book or two.

All in all, I enjoyed their company. I hope you do, too.

Sister Mary

A little woman, she holds down her wispy gray hair with a white sweat band, a silver cross pinned over her right ear. She wears baggy black pants and a gray hoodie. Wooden beads loop down from under the hoodie and tuck into her bulging pants pocket. The loop sways and clacks with every scurried step.

She says in Touch, “I haven’t been raped or abused since I was 16,” the year she entered religious life. 22 years after that in 1959, with the permission of her order, she opened Saint Rita’s shelter for abused women and their children, named after the patron saint of abuse victims.

By the close of Touch in 2008, she has managed this 30-woman center, a converted warehouse, for 49 years. Almost three thousand women have graduated, as she calls it, from her shelter. Hundreds of graduates work as volunteers, from the center’s emergency drivers to its lawyers and accountants.

Maybe in the next book, Traffic, there should be one heck of a party, when St. Rita’s turns 50—and Sister Mary turns 88.