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Putting Herself Into Her Characters

St. Louis — There’s a lot of author Laura Nowlin in her protagonist, Autumn Rose Davis. Both grew up in north St. Louis County, Nowlin in Florissant, Autumn in Ferguson. Both knew they were destined to be writers from an early age; each wrote a novel in high school. Both grapple with clinical depression.

“Yes, but really, every character is based on me,” she said. “I can’t just make a character up. Everyone has a piece of myself.”

Did she by any chance wear tiaras in high school, like Autumn, the lead character in Nowlin’s debut novel, If He Had Been With Me?

“OK, that was me,” she concedes. “Probably twice a week, I wore a tiara to school because I thought they were pretty. I had five or six of them.”

If He Had Been With Me tells the story of two children with absent fathers and present mothers who are best friends, growing up next door to one another like family. Something happened in middle school that drove them apart, but both, on some level, seek reconciliation. The story ends in tragedy.

Nowlin’s family — her parents, Gary and Susan, and big sister, Elizabeth — moved to Florissant when she was 9 from her native Fayetteville, Ark. “I’m very glad my parents moved to St. Louis,” she said. “I would not have thrived in Arkansas.”

She attended McCluer High School (“Not McCluer North; the original one”), then went to Missouri State University in Springfield, got married and moved back to St. Louis. Her day job, although she works evenings, is with the St. Louis County Library’s Rock Road branch, in St. Ann.

Her husband, Robert Rosener, is a sound engineer who works at the Heavy Anchor, a bar and music venue in south St. Louis. Nowlin works there sometimes as well, “but I’m going to be cutting back on that.”

That’s because If He Had Been With Me is a hit among the YA crowd. Although she can’t discuss details until contracts are signed and settled, Nowlin, 28, has two more projects in the works.

Nowlin wrote her first poem in first grade, and her first novel in high school. “Of course,” she said, “I could never get that one published. One day I’d like to rewrite it.” If He Had Been With Me is the second novel she’s completed, but the first to hit print.

In September 2008, Nowlin was diagnosed with clinical depression. “I was just desperately, desperately unhappy, to the point that I wasn’t really able to function. I was working as a flight attendant for a commuter airline, which was incredibly, incredibly stressful; the days I was home could barely able get out of bed.”

She quit, “which was really hard to do because my husband and I were really struggling financially, but I could not function and continue that job. I’d had therapy, and hadn’t written anything I liked for a long time.” Ready to write “something emotionally honest,” Nowlin decided she needed to set it in St. Louis.

Among the burdens of depression is often a sense of hopelessness and a difficulty in finding motivation. Asked if it’s hard to write with depression, Nowlin considers and said, “I think it helps, it makes me more emotional. I wouldn’t trade being a writer for normal brain chemistry. If that’s what it takes to be a writer, it’s worth it.”

It led directly to her book.

“At the end of a period of depression,” she recalls, “when I was starting to feel better, I woke up in the middle of night; I’d basically dreamed the ending of the book. I woke up, wrote the first chapter, and went back to bed. I liked what I’d written in the morning.”

Motivation isn’t a problem, in any case. “It was just the only thing I ever wanted, from the time I was really little, to be a published novelist. Writers have a track record for having sad lives; I went into it knowing that I was choosing a different path from other people that would be harder — and I knew that if I had a published novel, it would be worth it to me.”

Setting the story in St. Louis “made it easier to tap into my emotions and write honestly about them,” Nowlin said.

“Nothing that happened in the book ever literally happened to me, but the emotional context behind them did. I had some similar experiences. Having it set in St. Louis made me feel exposed, and made it easier to go a step further, to be honest about my emotions.”

That particular content has connected with readers, who, Nowlin admits, can be a bit on the emo side (“One girl posted on another’s Facebook wall ‘We should read this book together and then cry together’ ”). A few, she reports, consider her depiction of high school rivalries immature: “I guess they just don’t remember high school clearly.”

Because she injects so much of herself in the book and her characters, “a critique of it doesn’t feel like (a critique of) something I made; it feels like a critique of me. But this is what I wanted.”

Nowlin thinks her hide is thickening, “but I have heard of established authors biting their nails: is this the one where I’m going to disappoint my fans? As long as I can keep writing, and get something published, I’ll be happy.”