Essay by Author Jennifer duBois
In some of its themes, Cartwheel draws inspiration from the case of Amanda Knox, the American foreign exchange student accused, convicted, and acquitted of murdering her roommate in Italy. I was fascinated by the idea of writing about a fictional character who serves as a blank slate onto which an array of interpretations—often inflected by issues of class and privilege, gender and religion, American entitlement and anti-American resentment—tend to be projected. The fictional Lily Hayes shares these broad and nebulous qualities with Amanda Knox; their similarities lie in the contradictory but confident judgments they animate in others.
The eponymous cartwheel serves as a good example of the novel’s intention, as well as its relationship to reality. In the book, some view Lily Hayes’s interrogation room gymnastics as callous, others as benign, others as suspicious. These divided perceptions were initially inspired by the response to the cartwheel Amanda Knox was widely reported to have done during her interrogation—a cartwheel that, we now know, never actually occurred. This episode, I think, illustrates some of the central questions I wanted to explore in this novel—questions about how we decide what to believe, and what to keep believing—while also demonstrating part of why I needed a totally fictional realm to do this.
In contemplating the possibility that this book could be mistaken as a narrative about—and judgment on—real-life people and events, I’ve come to appreciate how entirely my view of writing and reading fiction is based on a single moral premise: that the act of imagining the experiences of fictional people develops our sense of empathy, as well as our sense of humility, in regarding the experiences of real ones. To me, the fictional barrier around the characters in this book isn’t just a necessary prerequisite for trying (or even wanting) to write a novel about the fallibility of perception—it’s also fundamental to my notion of fiction’s ethical possibilities in the world. And so it is as a person, even more than as an author, that I ask readers to have no doubt as to whose story this is. In the real universe is a girl who never did a cartwheel. This novel is the story of a girl who did.