5th July 2013
One last harp on my class with Paul Harding a couple of weeks ago and then I'll let him go: I had a question I was bursting to ask him or any other significant writer which had to do with how much the author inhabits his or her characters. See, when I started my book (the one that's about to come out any minute now in nine months) my intention was to have a protagonist who wasn't sort of a mirror doppleganger of myself. It's not that I'm an especial egoist or overly vain (though I might also be both of those things), but just that somehow my protagonists mostly are me with my set of values and ideas, my cosmology. I decided to call this new character Maggie Livingstone, who was a childhood friend of mine (still is, in fact, and lives now in the exact location of my book.)
I wasn't going to make my protagonist a copy of the real Maggie Livingstone who is a veterinarian and sort of a no-nonsense type of person, but I thought if I gave her that name, she wouldn't end up spouting my religious beliefs and my longings and my moral values. In the event, I managed to keep that up only for a short while, and the more my character moved through the scenes and the book came to take shape, there I was again in the middle of the action, merely masquerading as my friend.
So, my question to Paul Harding was just this: how can you keep yourself out of your writing and create rounded characters who aren't you? (I put this to him when the rest of the class had gone on coffee break and I had him to myself.) I was a little bit surprised by his answer, because I (being an egoist and thoroughly vain) had thought this was a problem unique to myself. But no, he said he had struggled with the same thing and that every author did. He said from time to time he wondered that if he were a better writer, he might be able to write protagonists that weren't himself, but ultimately the author is putting his or her self on the page and that's the way it should be. (I'm not talking about genre writing here. Formula novels don't run into this problem so much because the characters are more cookie cut out of material that is already made to a certain recipe.)
I was looking this week at Elizabeth Strout's new book "The Burgess Boys," her follow-up to Pulitzer prize winning "Olive Kitteridge." I wasn't surprised to find another Olive Kitteridge between the pages doing business under another name. Location was the same, character almost the same. It's just that our psyches are populated by certain characters or archetypes and the author would have to twist him or herself into all kinds of contortions to make this inner world come out on the page as something else.
So Herman Hesse wrote a large number of books and basically they all come with the same message, the same set of values and the same array of characters. (I read them all nevertheless.) DH Lawrence, the favourite of my youth, wrote the same book over and over. The point is, in the words of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, "Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir." (the famous, "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.")
So I got my question answered, and I feel better about Maggie Livingstone turned Claire McDougall (though Maggie may not!) Paul Harding said that the opening of "Tinkers," where his protagonist hallucinates that the ceiling is cracking and falling in on him springs right out of his own history with his grandfather.
He also said this (and then I am done), which is on a different track but something that has stuck with me: the best part of the process of writing is after the author has lain down the first draft and then is going back over it and by dint of a very small adjustment here or there in a sentence or paragraph, a whole new level of meaning unfolds itself. He said that you can almost hear the tumblers of the lock all aligning and the door swinging open. So true, so true, and what the author lives for, these moments of epiphany that come at him from somewhere else. Let's say, beyond the door.
Or you could think of it as carving marble. In the first draft a form takes shape, and then as you go back to it, the shape refines. A face emerges and it is the figure of a man. A small movement of the chisel here or there, and then it all falls into place - all along what you were carving was not a bust of John Calvin after all but of Nietzsche. Pace Paul Harding.