How do you see your role as a writer?
I think it’s fair to say I see mine as trying to make sense of the world and by doing so offering another perspective. I think that’s why I am so in love with character narrators with really strong voices. I get to act, to be someone else and as a result, while I have my own views of the world, oddly my characters actually teach me theirs.
Of course I start with my views and there may be some facet of human nature, some flaw of personality, even some unfathomable (to me anyway) behaviour I want to explore in a story. So I start out with a character, take Lydia in While No One Was Watching, my African-American psychic. Where did she come from? In part she came from Molly another character in another novel that I still plan to rework, but how I really met her was in the original short story where I saw a room, a reporter and a woman sitting holding a child’s locket. What I saw of her first were her big black hands and the silver chain dripping through her fingers. I saw her lean forward in the chair and I heard her say, “It belonged to a little girl. She disappeared the day Kennedy was shot and was never found.” And from that came the short story that got some amazing comments from the tutors on an Arvon course and later morphed into the novel. But what could this psychic, who in that short story I didn’t quite trust, have to teach me?
Well I tell you she taught me all sorts about what it might be like to grow up in Texas; she was sixteen when Kennedy was assassinated. She taught me there is a little town called Hamilton Park that has a large African-American community. She taught me what it was like growing up with the legacy that there was a time when black people couldn’t ride the bus with white people — or if they did, they had to ride at the back. Seems ridiculous and appalling now but it really wasn’t so long ago now, was it?
Now in the short story I had her papa as the first black magician in Texas as I wanted it to be something he was very proud of and a work ethic he tried to instil in his children. But also it allowed me to use one of my favourite lines, that sadly had to be taken out as you’ll see. Because the short story was an exploration of voice and unreliable narration, the reader wasn’t meant to know if Lydia could be trusted, and there was a comparison with what her papa did. Now this was still used in earlier drafts of the novel where he was still a magician. I liked the whole sleight of hand thing and in fact that still applies to a little girl disappearing while no one was watching. So it had more levels than just a career I chose for him. But our astute cynical reporter, who sees asking a psychic to find a missing child as a desperate last resort, is even more cynical when he knows what job her papa did.
The reporter looks at Lydia and he says, “So your papa was a magician — is that so?”
And she says, “Is so. And real proud he was too.”
And the reporter leans back and nods and he says, “So he made ’em disappear and you find ’em, right?”
I liked the whole idea of that, but since the character and her dead papa were explored in so much more depth in the novel, an editor at one of the big agents who worked with me for a while asked me, if her papa was so opposed to what she did, ‘necromancing’ and claims talking to the dead is against God, then — would he be a magician?
Good point. Excellent point in fact. Worth noting lovely writer friends when you make changes or adapt short stories. The editor was right — his job didn’t fit with my new discoveries about each character so I had to rethink it. And trust me it’s not just a case of saying — oh he can be a baker then or a shoe maker. No and so began another history lesson from Lydia Collins that I reckon she was dying to teach me, I was just too blind to see it before.
So how did Lydia teach me more history?
Well let me tell you. I went back and she showed me what it was like to live in Hamilton Park — and yes it is a real place. And I found out that it was a planned town, designated for the African-Americans. There’s a whole book about it as a matter of fact — link at the end to the book and here is another link that might be of interest: http://forum.dallasmetropolis.com/archive/index.php/t-6513.html
We’ve all read about slavery and the Jim Crow era, are aware of the prejudices so I did want to move away from stereotypes and as a white person I also have to be really sensitive to this or someone will say — what right do you have to tell a story that’s not yours? And they might have a point. So great care taken. But I had a great teacher and what Lydia taught me was that first of all she had a very proud papa who was now not the first black magician in Texas but the first person in his family to own his own home — in Hamilton Park. She also showed me how many of these people got good jobs too many out at Love Field, the airport very significant to the Kennedy story. And so her papa came to do the same, working for Braniff Airlines. All the pieces were really falling into place. And while he was very proud, Lydia sat me down and she told me, “Debz, my papa was so proud ’bout the way he got through the ‘selection’, folks sayin’ good things ’bout him so he could get that mortgage. but what he never said was how roundin’ all them black folks up together and makin’ their own town was just the same as makin’ a pen for black sheep. Movin’ us to the edge of the town.”
Now what made it into the book, like the line above, evolved from what I read in real accounts. But it’s a whole part of history I knew nothing about and I am so glad that editor made that suggestion. But even happier Lydia taught me about this.
I by no means mean to cause offence to any African-Americans and I hope her voice is authentic and accepted because she is my favourite character, and yes I know you should love all your children equally, but she taught me so much and I hope she continues to as I would love to work with her again. I dare say she will wake me up some night who knows when or how long from now with another story to tell me! And I’ll be waiting.
So I guess what I’m saying is, you might, as the writer, set out with your own views and statements about the world you want to explore through your writing, but sometimes your characters — well they have whole other ideas.
So a good writer, has to also be a good listener.
And maybe my role isn’t just to force my own views onto my readers, but others’ views and really I guess it is to explore new perspectives, just some might not be mine! It’s like gaining sympathy for a character I started out hating! And there are lots of other characters all waiting in line and I guess it’s who shouts the loudest first that gets my attention.
Maybe all I really am is a vehicle for bringing characters like Lydia to you — so you better listen to her, right Lydia?
Yes, Sir. I’m comin’ soon.