My new book, Venturess, is about three friends who are in love with each other, whose love makes them a family. It was important to me not to define that love in an explicitly romantic or sexual way, because those particular elements aren’t part of every intense, loving relationship, or of every family unit.
Someone asked me in a recent interview if I based any of my characters on people from my life, and I said no – the people I know definitely inform my characters, but I don’t tend to base them on one single source.
But there was a time when I fell in love with three people at once . . .
I spent the summer I turned seventeen living with a host family in the south of France.
Life was good.
I mean, life in Royan was good, with the language immersion and the food and the sunflower fields and a cooking class taught by an actual giant-mustachioed French chef and . . . OK, yes, all of that was really great. But it’s not what makes that summer stand out with so much warmth and affection in my memory.
During orientation, I met three other students named Olivia, Sasha, and Hannah, and we were best friends by the end of the day. It was probably the closest thing to love at first sight that I’ve ever felt – maybe love at first conversation?
We were all very different people. Olivia was fiery and sarcastic, lived in Manhattan when she wasn’t at boarding school, and wanted to be a filmmaker. Sasha, the only boy, was obsessed with economics and lived in Hong Kong, where he attended a glamorous-sounding international school. Hannah was from Texas and had spent probably the most time travelling of any of us, and she was a devout Christian who loved to read. I loved books too, I’d been Christian most of my life but was recently and bitterly disillusioned, and I’d lived what suddenly seemed like a very sheltered and boring existence in rural New England.
I don’t really remember what we talked about that first day, only that it made us all laugh so much our sides hurt. We quickly absconded to a nearby cafe to continue reveling in our enjoyment of each other. Every moment that we weren’t in class or with our host families, we spent together. We went to French movies that we struggled to understand and American ones with subtitles. We ordered ice cream dishes with liqueur toppings that made us feel madly rebellious (maybe we were all a little sheltered). We wandered the Royan boardwalk and sat on the beach late into the night, talking about anything and everything.
I loved these people. I adored them.
By the end of the program we had a collective nickname: KOSH, for each of our initials. (I hated being called Betsy when I was younger, and I’d rebranded myself as Kat for the summer because I thought it would make me cooler. Shockingly, I was still the same person – although through O,S, and H’s eyes, I started to like myself a little more.)
When the summer ended, we left France and went back to our respective corners of the world.
I didn’t see them again for ten years.
In 2015, we decided to reunite in New York City on 4th of July weekend. I was teaching writing at a summer camp in Pennsylvania that year, and I remember feeling slightly terrified as I took the train up to Penn Station. We’d been some kind of soul mates when we were teenagers, but would we be able to connect again now?
I didn’t need to worry. Whatever magic was there before lit right up again when one of us asked if anyone still spoke French – and everyone burst out laughing. We roamed around the city all weekend finding bookstores and French food and semi-affordable Broadway tickets, and once more talking later into the night than was really wise, especially since we were now grown-ups with jobs and things to get back to.
Olivia works for a production company in L.A. Sasha is an economist in Ontario. Hannah is a teacher and librarian in Texas. I live in Ireland and write books. Three of us are married (not to each other).
Maybe it’s a cop-out to claim this intense friendship as inspiration for the intentionally queer family dynamics in Venturess. I’m a bisexual cis woman married to a cis man, and I don’t consider myself polyamorous. I don’t want to lay claim to something that isn’t mine – and yet that’s a kind of self-shaming that I’ve often felt as a bisexual person, worrying that I’m “not queer enough” for the community. I write a lot about liminality, partly because so much of the love that I’ve experienced falls into those funny in-between places that are not easy to describe.
Still, the relationships in Venturess felt very close to home, close to my heart, as I wrote them. When Nick begins sleeping in the same bed with her friends Fin and Caro, and wakes up feeling more at home than she ever has before, I know that feeling. The four of us slept together (in the same-bed sense) in France. We all carried with us the acute loneliness that I think only teenagers feel, and in our love for each other we were able to alleviate it, for a little while. We were each other’s family that summer, and our love will always be part of who I am.
Betsy Cornwell is the New York Times best-selling author of Tides,
Mechanica, and Venturess. She graduated from Smith College and was a columnist and editor at Teen Ink before receiving an MFA in creative writing from Notre Dame, where she also taught fiction. After grad school, she ran away to Ireland to live with the fairies, and she now resides in a small cottage on the west coast with her horse-trainer spouse. To learn more, visit her at www.betsycornwell.com, on Twitter at @Betsy_Cornwell, and on Instagram at @BetsyCornwell.