Sunday, April 01, 2007

Stranger Than Nonfiction: Meeting a Character from a Book

It may be April Fool's Day, but this is no joke: I met a character from a book the other night. He appears in Girlbomb by Janice Erlbaum, and I met him because he was a guest at the author's paperback release party last Thursday at the Bowery Poetry Club, where I met people such as la comedienne Jennifer Glick and the author herself, who wouldn't let me buy her a drink. Can't blame her; this wasn't a hard-drinking crowd, at least not on the night in question.

So, back to meeting a character from a book. Janice stood on the stage and announced to the assembled crowd that she had a special guest tonight, one of the stars of her memoir, a person she hadn't seen in twenty years. And then everyone's eyes went to a guy who was walking back to his seat at a table near the foot of the stage. The author carried on with her Girlbomb presentation, but my eyes stayed stuck for a minute on the guy sat at the table. Which character was he? I had to know.

After the presentation, I dared myself to approach him. This is where having been a newspaper reporter comes in handy--it helped me develop my skill at accosting strangers and asking them questions that should be none of my business. Although, believe it or not, I'm actually a bit shy in these situations, and daring myself to make the approach always feels like jumping off a high dive. But I had to talk to this guy because I would die if I didn't or, at the very least, live in eternal regret. As I crossed the Bowery Poetry Club's dance floor, headed toward the character's table, I had that out-of-body feeling of not really believing I was doing what I was doing and being clueless about what I was going to say.

I find that it's best in these situations to keep things simple, and it's important to be polite. So I simply put my face down toward his, smiled, introduced myself, and said: "I read Girlbomb. Would you mind telling me which character you played?"

"Sebastian," he said.

"Sebastian? Hmmm, which one was that again?"

"I was the boyfriend she moved in with..."

"Oh my god, you're Sebastian? You're a knockout! You're the best character in the book? I can't believe I'm talking to Sebastian!"

Sebastian! I couldn't believe I was talking to Sebastian! (I hope by now, dear blog reader, that I've sufficiently established that I couldn't believe that I was actually speaking to Sebastian.)

In real life, Sebastian looks like a small Norse god, a small, skateboard-carrying Norse god with a flash of a gold tooth in his mouth. His eyes are very clear, his hair is a shockingly whitish blond, cut close to his head, and his body has a lean and efficient look to it. He's striking--you can see how easy it would be for him to become a major character in a memoir.

Now here it is, on page 173 of the hardback edition of Girlbomb, how Janice met Sebastian as she was tripping on LSD in Washington Square Park on a summer's day sometime in the 1980s:

"Zing. There he was, on an opposite bench, this insanely beautiful platinum-haired guy. He stared at me frankly, and I stared back, taking in his fine cheekbones and strong nose, the phoenix tattooed on his wiry bicep. Who could this be? He sat near the rest of the skateboarders, toting a board of his own, but I'd never seen him before. I had an unerring eye for cataloging hot guys; I certainly would have remembered him.

"Our eyes met, and he raised his eyebrows slightly. I blushed.

"Someone hailed him--'Yo, Sebastian!'--and he turned away. I ducked my red face to my chest, tried to slow my pounding heart.


"Tripping or no, I had to meet him. He was like a unicorn, a fairytale creature, right there in front of me--if I didn't seize this impossible moment, I'd never see the likes of him again. I rose from my bench like a sleepwalker drawn to a dream, floated up to the outskirts of his group. My tongue was clenched like a fist in my mouth."

I'll tell you now why meeting this particular character in that particular book felt so fateful to me, personally. The thing is, I'm currently creating my own Sebastian in my own memoir, only my character is named Kent and in real life he is my flesh-and-blood first cousin. Janice has written her memoir in a really novelistic way, and she's one of my inspirations as I write Chasing Bad Girls. Like Sebastian, Kent is my rescuer of sorts, and he has a star-like, larger-than-life quality. (Sebastian now lives in Hollywood, by the way, and Kent owns a music recording studio in London, which just goes to show.)

Here's how I describe Kent when introducing him as a character in my book:

"He may be my first cousin, but he also is essentially my muse, and it’s not clear whether he chose me or I chose him. I’m wildly fond of Kent. He’s an artist and a materialist, opinionated, handsome, and one of my favorite family members. A big man, Kent takes up a lot of space, and I don’t care that some people call him the Duke of Kent behind his back and say he only moved to England because he’s a royalist.

"'Are you a bad girl, Joycie? Do you think you’re a bad girl?' Kent asks in the foppish, lord of the manor style that he began cultivating to compensate for being an American when he arrived on English shores twenty years ago. He wears bespoke suits around the house and gets his hair colored by a stylist, which he started doing back when he was in a New Romantics rock band."

Oh, dear. "Foppish, lord of the manor"--sounds a bit harsh, doesn't it? Cruel. Having met Sebastian, who is a flesh-and-blood human being in addition to a character in a book, I've realized that my description of Kent could very well hurt his feelings. I adore Kent and would never want to hurt his feelings. In re-reading that passage just now, I can see that I'm exaggerating his qualities as I try to boost him up to the level of being a star-like character in a novelistic memoir. It's tricky business writing a memoir involving people you actually know, especially when you're a hardcore people pleaser like me.

Speaking of which, it's April Fool's Day, isn't it? April 1st. Kent's birthday. Happy Birthday, Kentie! I love you!


Clio Bluestocking said...

I'm so jealous that you could go!

I saw the pictures on her website and you are correct: he looks exactly like her description.

That's kind of the tricky thing about writing anything personal, isn't it? The people involved -- or who think they are involved, if you write fiction -- can get hurt by an honest portrayal. Perhaps that is the conundrum of being an artist? After all, you are trying to create something, now be a diplomat!

When can we expect your book?

Anonymous said...

And it's Duke of Earl, NOT Duke of Kent.

Joyce Hanson said...

Hey, Clio. I've been working with my literary agency for the past year on my book proposal and sample chapters. My book will be published when my agency feels the material is ready to be sent to publishers. They keep sending my stuff back to me for rewrites because they want a proposal that really pops. (The more the pop, the bigger the advance, that's the theory.) Speaking of hurt feelings, I've felt quite wounded at times by some of the agency readers' editorial comments. (Examples: "Yuck! Sorry to be blunt but this is all so obvious." "NO! You cannot talk in touchy-feely cliche!" "Tone down!!!!! You're telling too much! Be more subtle.") And I'm one of the lucky writers who actually has an agent. Lucky, lucky me!

So, Clio, you sound like you know something about writing and hurting people's feelings as a result. But how can a writer who knows actual people ever avoid it? Even if it's a case of mistaken identity--i.e., a friend or family member thinks she recognizes herself when you weren't really writing about her at all. Anyway, thank god all my bad girls are dead! That's the beauty of writing about history--no one's there anymore to complain.
NOTE TO ANONYMOUS: But Kent's name is Kent, which makes Duke of Kent funnier than Duke of Earl. See? I've just fictionalized my friends' comments to make them funnier.
FINAL WORD: I think I've just crossed the bounds of propriety with the length of this comment, but it's my blog so I can do whatever I want.

Clio Bluestocking said...

I once had a professor who would right such comments on papers as "bah!" or "cow poo!" I was kinda disappointed I never received "cow poo!"

Thus far, I have not ever actually hurt someone with my writing, that I know of. I'm really afraid of that; but rather than not write, I just don't tell them what I've written. For instance, I have two friends from my offline life who know about my 'blog, and NO family members.

Since I focus on history, you would think that the concerned parties would no longer care being that they are dead and all, but that is not always the case. I met a descendant of Frederick Douglass who took great exception to someone else's suggestion that his wife was pregnant before their marriage (I took exception to the suggestion, too, but because it was bad research and worse interpretation). I'm always terrified when I meet someone who is descended from a slave holder whom I've written about because sometimes those descendants get very ruffled at the critique of slaveholding. Right now, I'm facing the potential of pissing off a whole town of people who like to think they were the center of the universe, and part of my thesis is based on the fact that it wasn't.

As writers, I think we are in control of the narrative and thus a very public version of reality. People who are in some way affected by the narrative, but who don't have an equally public version of the events, do not necessarily like being so out of control. They might even resent it. I can't say I blame them, but I can't help but do what I do, either. Maybe that's why a lot of artists were considered real bastards in real life!

Meanwhile, I hope those agents hurry up and send your manuscript to a publisher!

Anonymous said...

be careful what you say about my brother!!

stuart doobie

Anonymous said...

you and clio could do most of that private blather in the privacy of your own email, n'est-ce pas??? (Elle parle trop!) (Mais oui, oui un peu mechant de ma part on dirait!!!)

Anonymous said...

KENT ROCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Joyce Hanson said...

Stuart??!!? Hi! But maybe I love Kent even more than you do! He does rock! Anyway, I'll keep in mind that Kent's brother is keeping an eye on me. Gulp. Oh god, my entire family is going to hate me by the time my book gets published.

Anonymous said...

Kent is the coolest (or was)...
as I recall, Stuart wasn't half-bad either...
and anyway, its most definitely the Duke of Kent, and NOT the Duke of Earl (who the hell is Earl anyway?)

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