by Nikki Stern
At 7:30 a.m. on a summer morning, the northern Wisconsin air did not yet hint at the promise of another typically beautiful day. Our twelve-year-old selves, denied the future pleasures of hot coffee, had stoked ourselves with pancakes and bacon.
Dressed in the camp uniform of blue shorts and white blouses, some of us with navy cardigans to ward off the lingering chill, we made our way to the platform, picked up our .22 caliber rifles and lay down. Ahead of us—it wouldn’t have been more than fifty feet—were an array of targets. My goal that day was to continue to move through the NRA-designed program and also move into a sitting position with a qualifying score.
Camp Whispering Pines for Girls was a full-throttle camp that offered instruction in a variety of water and land sports. I was a middle-class klutz with no talent for tennis, no build for competitive swimming, no chance of winning a footrace and enthusiasm but little experience on the back of a horse. But I could handle a rifle. It felt natural. It helped me focus. I understood the concept of the easy breath, the slow pull, the steadying opposition of the rifle butt kicking against the shoulder, and most of all, the exhilaration of hitting the target.
My uncle was an outdoorsman and a hunter, so I had a chance to fire a rifle at other times of the year. I never went hunting with him; I couldn’t bring myself to shoot at an animal, even a duck. But Uncle Bob was as enamored of sport shooting as I was. At his farm, we took aim at bottles and cans lined up on a fence and even clay pigeons shot into the air. Sometimes, we used pistols but honestly, I was always most at ease with a rifle.
I had fun for a while. I impressed a high school boyfriend or two by winning a couple of stuffed animals at the State Fair. I briefly joined the National Rifle Association as a junior member. For eight years, I indulged my interest in marksmanship. Then the times changed and so did I. Physically and philosophically, target practice no longer attracted me.
Much later, after several intermediary careers, I’ve discovered writing produces a parallel sense of accomplishment. My “target” is a story with a voice, one that transcends the material and reaches the reader. Of course, it helps to write what you know. My two non-fiction books were both prompted by my experiences as a “9/11 widow”—how the death of my husband changed and didn’t change me, how it altered and didn’t alter the culture.
Fiction, I’ve learned, is trickier. As author, I have to relate to the characters I am creating if I expect my readers to do the same. It also helps if I can understand on some level what makes them tick.
Suzanne Foster is the protagonist who anchors my suspense novel, The Former Assassin. She’s a wife and a mother. She’s survived a neglected childhood, time living on the street, a stint in the Army, and twenty-five years in service to a criminal for whom she killed. She struggles with moral quandaries related to her career that I’ve never had to face. Nothing in her resume accords with my personal history.
Well, almost nothing. Suzanne and I have both known loss. We’ve both been rendered helpless by ill-advised choices and worse, choices denied. We’ve experienced the redemptive power of love, the frustration of moving beyond one’s history, the unbidden rage that lives just beneath the surface, and the ever-present awareness of our own mortality.
And we both know how it feels to get off a good shot.
Nikki Stern is an essayist and author. Her non-fiction book Hope in Small Doses is a 2015 Eric Hoffer medal finalist for books that “provoke, inspire, and redirect thought.” Her essays have appeared in three anthologies and in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today and Humanist Magazine. The Former Assassin is her first novel.