May 02

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The Pizza Rat Book: Building a Story out of Local Inspiration by Jacqueline Resnick

        I’ve always drawn a lot of inspiration from settings. It could be an idyllic seaside town, a storied city street, or even an abandoned building—I love to dream up worlds to make these places come alive. Who lives there? What amazing things happen there? Is it magical? Secret? Scary? My thesis manuscript in grad school was inspired by an old, gorgeous church on my Brooklyn street, which obviously had to be a portal to the North Pole. So, living in New York, it made sense that I’d be inspired by the most New York of all places: the subway.

There’s just something captivating about the subway. A labyrinth of tunnels! A fleet of trains! Forgotten stations long ago abandoned! It’s an entire underground world, with only one inhabitant: rats.

I used to watch for rats as I waited for the train in my local subway station. I’d wonder: Where did they live? Did they have families? How did they use their forages? Slowly, a character began to emerge from my wonderings. He was a young rat named Raffie who lived with his family behind the walls of Brooklyn’s Bergen Street F station.

I was in the middle of writing about my fictional New York City subway rat when something amazing happened. A real New York City subway rat suddenly became famous.

His nickname was Pizza Rat, and he was just a regular rat, trying to carry a slice of pizza down subway station stairs. His video went viral, and soon millions of people were watching his quest to carry a slice of pizza. He was featured in news articles; he trended on Twitter; he even inspired Halloween costumes.

Pizza Rat, © Buzzfeed

 

I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Here I was, trying to make one of the city’s most hated creatures likable, and this little guy goes ahead and does it in fifteen seconds, with one fateful slice of pizza. The more I wrote about Raffie, the more I found myself thinking about Pizza Rat, until I found I couldn’t separate one from the other.

Raffie was Pizza Rat: just a regular rat who would do anything for a delicious slice of New York pizza. Pizza became Raffie’s favorite food. It became his ultimate motivator. It initiated the very adventure that ignites Raffie’s story.

It was a clear case of art imitating life, and at first this worried me. Was I allowed to borrow so directly from real life? Was Raffie’s story still his own?

Yes and yes, I decided.

Because isn’t that how influences work? Something from real life lodges itself in your brain and refuses to disappear, until finally it seeps out through your words. It’s not the influence, but what you do with it that makes a story your own.

Stories are kind of like kids. They start out as teetering toddlers, just trying to find their way. It’s our job as writers to let them try new things—be influenced—as they grow and develop. That’s the only way they can figure out exactly what story they’re meant to be.

It was Pizza Rat who helped me figure out Raffie’s story. Thanks to one viral video, part of the direction of my book changed. And it became a much stronger story because of it.

It reminded me how important it is to be open to inspiration in my daily life. Locations, artwork, news stories, videos, even people on the street—any of them could end up being the influence that helps a story find its way.

I started keeping my eyes open to New York in a brand new way. I noticed other animals that inspired the same kind of disgust as rats: pigeons, squirrels, cockroaches, and occasionally, the pampered lap dog. They were the true New Yorkers, a sort of underbelly of city life.

Those animals lodged themselves in my brain and refused to disappear. As Raffie’s story developed, they seeped out onto the page. A street pigeon who wants to break free from his flock. An under-the-sink cockroach who is surprisingly genteel.  A spoiled lapdog who is secretly pining away for a mutt. They became the supporting cast in Raffie’s story.

I noticed places, too. A famous pizza joint, not far from my apartment. The Diamond District, with its gemstones and tourists. Central Park, a respite of calm within a chaotic city. I let the things I saw and experienced in my hometown influence the things Raffie saw and experienced. It’s in this way that Raffie’s story became a true New York story, inspired and influenced by the very city it takes place in.

Now, I’m off to watch some YouTube viral videos, because you never know when and where inspiration will strike.

 

Jacqueline Resnick received her BA in English from Cornell University and her MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. She spent twelve years living in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York, working and writing in the children’s publishing field. She often wrote on the subway train, and every once in awhile she was lucky enough to spot a rat at her local station. She currently lives with her family in New Jersey. Learn more at http://www.jacquelinewrites.com