In which the Author explains free-range characters
and explores the futility of fresh paint on dry rot . . .
I gave you my devotion,
hiding nothing up my sleeve,
If I walked clean out of your life
would you even notice me leave?
So much tangled-up emotion,
should I stay or should I go?
If I walked clean out of your life
how long would it take you know?
Are we such good friends?
You used to say 'I love you',
you used to say 'You make me
feel alive and young';
now we're just a habit, a flavour,
one a month,
to titillate your tongue.
How sordid this has become
as the means approach the end
Oh, how long can we pretend
that we're still good friends?
--Peter Hammill, "Just Good Friends"
She seemed very regal to me
Just goes to show how wrong you can be
I'm gonna stop wasting my time
--Lou Reed, "Sad Song"
When people ask me about the book in terms of the writing's ebb and flow, I usually point them at this site because it saves me (and them) a potentially boring explanation. However, some folks inexplicably seem to persist in their interest, and for them I have two cocktail-party riffs--the how-do-you-start-a-rubber-band-ball routine (which I freely admit was stolen from another author because it exactly explains how I work), and a description of how characters eventually escape my control, leaving me to simply report on their actions. The latter is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, almost always eliciting nervous twitters because it conjures up crazy writers in Stephen King novels or Ronald Colman as the schizophrenic actor in A Double Life. As I say, a great cocktail party anecdote.
But what's often missed--especially with regard to the riff about free-range characters--is that both stories are deeply true: I'm not being amusing, facile or engaging in oversimplification . . .
Fast-forward to this weekend, and me struggling with a brand new bit of the novel--an insert for the book. It just wasn't happening, but in the worst way--deceptively. Here's how it normally goes: Think. Write. Rewrite. Think some more, write some more, rewrite some more. Repeat as often as necessary. When things go wrong, it's helpful if they go obviously wrong: Writer's block or a sticky problem means no words at all. Certainly bad news, but I quickly understand what's going on. However, this weekend an awful lot of words got banged down and polished only to be thrown away entirely. That's just not a problem; its a time sink--and, being hypersensitive to temporality these days, I really hate time sinks.
So I stopped, grabbed the messenger bag full of Moleskines, and settled into a Starbucks for a pop-in on Beatrice. It was time to catch-up with her. I suspected that part of the problem back at the word processor had to do with Beatrice evolving faster than I had kept up. The Moleskine devoted to her is an interesting artifact--its early pages are filled, in advance of writing the novel, with ideas about Beatrice, about what she might be like. Moving deeper into the notebook, you can see the initial ideas being refined and sometimes amplified. But then the notebook changes: You come upon a series of carefully dated sections about Beatrice that read more like reportage--which is literally what it is. When a character goes into free-range mode, I find it necessary to periodically describe what they're up to after-the-fact, when they've already behaved in certain ways. Call it ongoing pattern recognition. Each of the dated entries aren't reconstitutions of my total impressions of a character--they're merely updates; notes on those aspects that have most recently changed.
Which brings us back around to my cocktail set pieces--particularly the one about free-range characters. Because it's necessary to understand how characters take off without me before I share my newest impressions of Beatrice . . .
On occasion, Brian Eno--composer, singer, producer and multimedia artist--produces what he calls Generative Music. It's guided (not controlled) art that emanates from carefully assembled systems. Here's an example of Generative Music: Let's say you record, in complementary keys, a dozen pieces of music which range in duration from 1 minute to, say, 30 minutes. Let's assume that you loop each of these pieces, separated by randomly chosen intervals of silence, across all 70 minutes of a CD. Now imagine slipping the 12 discs into a dozen CD players, each attached to high-end speakers that are arrayed across the studio. Further envision these 12 players being started in a non-simultaneous fashion, and at the end of each disc's playback, the players will turn off for a random interval before once again playing their respective discs. Now imagine that you record the resulting combined, random, interleaved music for, say, 24 hours. And finally, pretend that you find the best bits in these 24 hours of material, work out a programatic order and send it out as your newest release.
Let's instantly dispense with the ultimately boring But-Is-It-Art consideration: You wrote all 12 pieces, you worked out the random looping and the random playback. You created the parameters and conditions for the music, but then let this designed system produce it. Yes, it's guided and not traditionally controlled, but indeed it's art. So let's move on, because there's something a lot more fascinating to consider.
Namely, you've created something you had no way of predicting. Oh, you might have a nebulous idea of what the recorded piece might sound like--maybe. But essentially, the music assembles itself after you fire-up the system--it's yours in the sense of being the systemic prime mover, but it's also Not You and you're affected in ways that being the creator usually short-circuits: The generated music has just as much ability to move you, to make you laugh and to generally surprise you as it does for any listener.
My characters grow through a process similar to Generative Music. Each one may have started as overpainted shards of metaphoric crockery, but then the book's "system" takes over. As the author, I'm aware of what I've started in motion, but after this, I become amazed and often bewildered as the novel's narrative collides and interleaves the characters. The first draft of the book is the equivalent of that contiguous, 24-hour recording of music generated by the individual, cycling loops. The revised novel maps to the released 70-minute CD--the whole mess is cherry-picked for effective passages and than rigorously ordered. Thus, what began as guided ends up being controlled . . .
This, friends, is how my characters go free-range. Beatrice has been colliding with Tony and Jack and other characters in ways that haven't always planned. (I think the answer to the old Character-or-Plot dichotomy is simply yes: It's a two-way street--there's no plot without character, but also no character without plot.) And these unintended story and character collisions can often shift characterizations in ways not foreseen in the master outline.
This brings us back to Starbucks and the Moleskine: I needed to take a new snapshot of Beatrice. All the wasted time this weekend can be seen as me holding a significantly dated picture while trying to identify her in a crowded train station. Before I could continue to write Beatrice, I needed to reassess her. Just as we all collect a growing number of identifying marks over time--myriad new scars, visible and hidden, so do characters over the often long stretch of writing them.
And compared to the other characters, there is a greater need to regularly assess Beatrice. It's the price of correcting something I call the Hannibal Lector Effect. Sometimes the most memorable characters are best served by being seen less frequently. Do you realize that Anthony Hopkins got an Oscar for 16 aggregate minutes of playing Lector in the two-plus hours of The Silence of the Lambs? Over the course of Hannibal Lector books and films, we see him with increasing frequency until he finally becomes the always-there center of Hannibal Rising--not coincidentally the weakest book and film in the series.
Early on, I learned to use Beatrice judiciously. Yes, she hovers over the whole book--that's the main point--but in final draft, it may turn out that more ink is expended on Julia's scenes. I'm anxious not to repeat Thomas Harris' mistake with Lector: Beatrice is infrequently center-stage for the simple reason that long durations under bright lights might reveal too much of the zippered monster costume.
But there's a potential danger with this strategy--I simply don't have the same amount of author-character interaction with Beatrice that I have with Tony or Jack or Julia or even Emma. I've discovered I need to work directly with characters to best understand how they change in real time, and by necessity, there's less opportunity to do this with Beatrice. In many ways, it's like an annual dinner with a friend never seen otherwise--most of the meal is spent catching up, not conversing. More frequent assessments of Beatrice's actions in the book make her scenes more vital simply because she and I are already caught up whenever we get together.
The caffeine-addled time I spent with my Beatrice notebook was helpful. The most useful thing I discovered was how much she'd darkened as a character. And for the first time, I also understood that the tragic consequence of her perpetual shape-shifting. These dual revelations extend her characterization, much as the normal range of sound is enhanced by the addition of technically inaudible high- and low-frequency information. (Yet another sort kind of dark matter, now that I think about.) The point being that the notes I make about Beatrice don't need to be literally used in the book in order to affect her characterization. It's enough the notes color my perception of her as I write or revise scenes in which she's featured.
My Beatrice pop-in worked like a charm; the new insert section is flowing pretty much like any new writing. Yup, you guessed it--Think. Write. Rewrite. Repeat. I'm appending my verbatim notes transcribed from the Moleskine scrawl because I think the new insert may be worth excerpting here in the near future. It might be interesting to have the working character notes close to a directly related passage from the book. At least, that's the plan . . .
The irony of Beatrice's shape-shifting is the genuine ossification of her life. She rejects past selves without managing to reject the past itself. It's like watching a succession of television shows without changing the channel: One new thing supplants another over the course of the day--most with no connection to the others--but by bedtime, you've only lived inside of one broadcast company's aesthetic and informational choices; all the seeming variety winds up being exclusive exposure to the sensibilities of a single programming czar.
On all levels, Beatrice is so tied to her city and region that she remains the same even as she changes. The past clings even as she turns her back on it and reinvents herself: A caterpillar may turn into a butterfly in a plexiglass exhibit, but the fact remains the plastic cage still encloses it. (On the other hand, maybe small-pond divas instinctively understand their status is dependent on the half-scale size of their world. This is something that needs deeper examination in the book.)
Perhaps the shape-shifting--at least in part--is her attempt to be urbane in a dying urban setting; cosmopolitan in a one-horse town. Put another way, the imaginary tea parties of little girls are most effectively conducted in the quiet of enclosed gardens, without the intrusion of a larger world highly resistant to being charmed and with no inclination to play along. Because charm and sexual prowess are her only super powers. (The songs that comprise The Formal Absences of Precious Things are not the only soundtracks of the book--other tunes also relate to the story that aren't referenced in the pages. Marianne Faithfull's "Sliding Through Life On Charm" is one of those, and I think about it a lot in terms of Beatrice.)
Tony is left to wonder about what's more horrifying: The cold-bloodedly engineered discontinuities of her life or, if you watch long enough, the obviousness of her posturing. Ultimately, however, the scariest perspective occurs if, for the sake of argument, Beatrice is allowed to get away with her discontinuities and posturing. Because it then becomes apparent that she's sold-out many times over--it occurs with every iteration of herself.
There's no real need to make Beatrice self-aware about the shape-shifting; she's consistently hung by her own inner logic: She hides her liberal streak in the workplace and guiltily downplays her conservative lackey status around her friends. She's a wannabe artist who undermines her work by refusing to reveal herself. She's the concert organizer who uses the position to book herself on stage (poetry slam used as a vanity press). She's the hippy turned suit who still pretends she has a secret hippy identity. She's a cheerleader for a dying city who gets far away from it every long weekend. She's a volunteer who chooses board positions with catered lunches over actually working on the streets. And, most sadly, she's a lover who nevertheless puts a price tag her passionately professed commitment by hiding the relationship for monetary advantage in the divorce from her husband.
The list is endless and the book is long because Beatrice has so many hypocritical facets. (The ongoing technical challenge is giving the readers enough hope that this time, honor and integrity will click-in, so that the rug can be pulled out from under them one more time.) If a coward can be said to die a thousand times, then perhaps the ongoing cost of being a chronic impostor is infinite self-betrayals.
Because here's the thing: Most of us have two personas--private us and public us--and one set of values. Selling-out and compromising occur in the lives of everyone, and Tony has not been spared his share of highly dubious behavior. But it's almost always containable--selling-out may occur more than once over a lifetime, but it usually occurs along the same fault line. Beatrice, however, has multiple fault lines--a new set for every shifted shape. She sells-out multiple times and in multiple ways. It's as if one has a chronically leaking fountain pen and solves the problem by endless buying new clothes. The pen continues to leak and you wind up with a closet full of stained suits and shirts. Which is funny and stupid and--when you think about--unsettlingly weird.
In the book, I don't think I've sufficiently explored what I've defined here: Specifically, Tony's confusion about which aspect of Beatrice makes him most queasy and, in terms of Beatrice herself, I may want to suggest that "there's simply no there there." Up until this point, I've allowed Tony to assume there's explicable core to Beatrice that she keeps hidden. I may want to rethink this . . .