Monday, February 11, 2013

Characters Real - And Unreal

Until this morning, sometime after breakfast, I really had no idea what I was going to write about this week. I was truly out of ideas; not that I am normally "in of" ideas about writing. Not these days when I am sitting unhappily under a Gibraltar-sized writer's block. But life does go on, writer's block or not, and I enjoy doing the blog because it does stir the creative juices a little, and that's usually fun. And then I read an interesting piece in the Opinions section of the New York Times, and that got me more or less on track.

Although I might have posted a piece about the inherent evil of large jigsaw puzzles. Last week - or was it the week before? - Suzanne decided it would be fun to put together a jigsaw puzzle. The one she (or we) picked out, at the bookstore at our National Gallery, was a Canadian art icon, if you will, Tom Thomson's The Jack Pine:


The scene is from Ontario's Algonquin Park, a few hours drive north and west from Ottawa. Thomson lived and worked there in the early years of the 20th century, and it is where he painted many (most?) of his justly famous works. It is also where he died, very mysteriously, in July 1917. The official cause of his death was accidental drowning - he was on a solo canoe trip at the time - but there has been frequent speculation that he might have been murdered. So a post on the "mystery" of Thomson's untimely death would not be inappropriate.

There is probably no way to count the number of reproductions of this particular painting; it adorns coffee mugs, teapots, calendars, prints and tourist brochures. It also makes for one frustratingly difficult bitch of a jigsaw puzzle. The colours and tints are numerous and subtle. Trying to sort and then fit together the 1,000 little pieces inspires thoughts of murder. Murder of what or whom is the question. For which I do not have an answer.

We spent most of the weekend working on it. We might have gone cross-country skiing, or skating, or to a movie, or even to the National Gallery to look at the many Thomson paintings in the collection. But, no, we stayed home, pyjama-clad, hovering over the large living-room coffee table, muttering oaths. It took hours just to construct the border. And that was the easy part. The 800 or so other pieces remain to be be sorted and fitted together. With luck, we might be finished by August.

So, yes, I did think thoughts of murder most foul. I also found myself casting my mind back twenty-some years to a superior mystery-thriller film that I remembered as being titled Jigsaw. But the mind plays tricks on one. There are a number of films with the title Jigsaw, but the film I was thinking of, from 1985, and starring Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges, is titled Jagged Edge.

That's close enough to a jigsaw puzzle, I think. Well, for me, anyway. All those little "jagged-edged" pieces defying our efforts to join them up. Anyway, I remember watching the film on VHS (back in the pre-DVD days) and being so engrossed in it that I had to watch the final climactic scenes standing up. It was that tense.

But all that having been written, what I really wanted to post about today is the use of real-life characters in a mystery novel. (Shades of the Tom Thomson mystery.) That, I have discovered, is a difficult thing to do, although I did do just that in my first book, Undertow. I set that book on the street in St. John's, Newfoundland (now formally known as the province of Newfoundland and Labrador) where I grew up. I peopled the book with characters both imaginary and almost-real. I used the names of people I knew. Halfway through the book, I had an anxiety attack of great enough severity that I phoned a lawyer friend and asked if I could be sued by the families of people I had used if they recognized some departed uncle or grandfather, or whatever, as a character in the book. The answer, for anyone who is curious about the possibility, is "no". One cannot apparently be sued by a descendant of someone no longer living. They might turn up on your doorstep and call you names, or punch you in the nose, but they cannot sue you.

My paternal grandmother appears in the book as a large unpleasant woman who might have committed one of the murders in the book. (She was a large, mostly unpleasant woman, in fact, but I also know for a fact that she did not actually murder anyone.) My paternal grandfather, her unhappy husband, also appears, but he is treated much better. I had a lot of sympathy for him, even though he was long dead before I appeared on the actual scene in 1939.

I also used a neighbour, thinly disguised, as a major character in the book, the husband of the woman who is murdered in her bath in Chapter One. I described him so well from real life that a few years after the book came out I had a telephone call from a gentleman in St. John's who was the real-life grandson of the book's character. He told me that when he read the book, the hair stood up on the back of his neck because he believed he was reading about his grandfather. After only a moment's hesitation, I told him that indeed it was his grandfather in the book. I was able to reassure him that the character's more negative qualities were fictional. He was relieved to hear that. And also just a bit pleased that a family member was, in a sense, immortalized in a novel.

But it's a tricky business using real-life characters in a work of fiction, especially if they are family members, or fabrications of people one has known. It is also, I think, hard to resist. We write - at least I do - what we know. And who we know, even if they are reconfigured in the retelling. I came late to writing fiction, taking on the task only after I had retired from my day-job in 1997. I had tried many times in the past, but without success. I had imagined, when I finally started the process in earnest in January of 1998, that I would somehow manage to write a single novel, probably a very bad novel, insist that my two daughters read the printout, and then spend the rest of my days working on my golf game. It didn't work out that way. The first book was pretty good, it was published, got mostly very good reviews, and was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel. After that, I managed to write two more pretty good novels, which have garnered mostly positive reviews. The fourth novel in the series? That remains a question mark. At least until I climb out from under that Gibraltar thing.

Having written all of the above, I will now cite the piece, mentioned above, from the New York Times, the one that got me started on this tack. It has the catchy, and very appropriate, title: The Body Under The Rug.

It is about the writing of a family memoir, and all of the attendant anxieties of writing about family. It really is worth reading. Consider a part of the penultimate paragraph:

Within this kind of work there is inherent conflict. The characters in a memoir are not real people, but inevitably feed on the blood of the living like vampires.

Substitute in the above "novel" for "memoir", and I think the thought holds true. I have often found an "inherent conflict" when I write characters who are based on people I know, or have known. It can be tricky, and difficult, but it also much more interesting and involving when it's done that way.


j welling said...

I love the group of seven. They're a large part of the reason I venture every year into the wilderness of Wabakimi in Northern Ontario just to enjoy that beauty.

I envy the Canadians their shield lakes and rugged back country. Astoundingly beautiful.

A good place for murder, too (though don't mention that particular story to the fishing companions).

Rick Blechta said...

Don't tell Tom Thomson, either. If you haven't heard of it, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, by Roy MacGregor. It reads like a mystery in many regards and is a completely fascinating look at his death in 1917. Was it a fishing accident, or was it murder?